What I wish I knew before coming to London

Recent Alumna Sarah Gibbs is now back in Canada after two and a half years at Goodenough completing her PhD on novelist and journalist George Orwell. Who better to offer some practical and light-hearted thoughts on how to fit right in to London life...

When I moved to London in September 2017 to begin my PhD, I was feeling fairly confident about my grasp of English culture. After all, I was an aficionado of British literary adaptations, both BBC and ITV. And my cousin in Aylesbury had shared important facts about local sports. I was ready to answer “The Arsenal” to any question that contained the word “football.” Turns out, however, there was a bit more to know…

As a recent Alumna, I’d like to offer some of my hard-earned wisdom to new and prospective Members of Goodenough College. Below, you’ll find my top tips and tricks for settling in successfully in London. You’ll feel like a native in no time.

Financials

Opening a bank account

This may be the single most difficult thing you do in London (and that includes your graduate studies). The influx of international students in September overwhelms banks in central London. Expect to wait over a month for an appointment if you stay in town. My advice? Hop on the tube and get outside the downtown core. Then you can find a branch that hasn’t been crushed by the student tsunami. Still expect to make multiple visits though. You generally have to provide your documentation, including your Statement of Student Status, before you can book an appointment.

“Saying” prices correctly

In North America, we “say” $2.50 as “two-fifty” or “two dollars and fifty cents.” In England, ₤2.50 is “two-pounds-fifty.” Just let it roll off the tongue.

Finding uses for two pence 

They’ve always been difficult to offload, but post-COVID-19, even fewer people are going to want your two pence coins. I’d recommend using them as coasters for tiny beverages, or grabbing some peanut butter and crafting a life-size, two-pence sculpture of Nelson. Otherwise, they’ll just form an archaeological layer on the bottom of your purse / wallet / huge chest pocket of your trendy dungarees.

Transit

Flagging buses

You have to do this. For those of you from large metropolitan areas, it may be obvious. But if you’re from the suburbs like me, you might stand at a bus stop for a while before you realise that TfL drivers aren’t mean or inattentive; you’re just missing a key part of the procedure.

Knowing your zones

The tube is the beating, underground heart of London, and its stations and service areas have become a locational shorthand for city-dwellers. People will tell you that something is just across from Angel station, or that they live “out in zone six.” Get to know your routes, and it will all be a lot less confusing.

Closures

Always. Check. Ahead. Especially on the weekends. Many tube lines close on Saturdays and Sundays for maintenance. The Transport for London (TfL) website provides up-to-date information about closures, delays, and detours.

Life on campus

Registration

What this will look like when social distancing comes to campus is anyone’s guess, but you’d do well to expect the registration day set-up to resemble a Soviet grocery store. You’ll need to line up to get a paper that will allow you to queue up in another line, at the head of which the paper will be stamped, and allow you access to a further line. Do not anticipate getting anything else done on registration day.

Printing credit

Check if your school/college provides this. In the past, students at UCL have received ₤12 of free printing annually. The funds may be autoloaded onto your student card.

Lockers and storage space

Universities in central London suffer from severe shortages of space, which means that it is very difficult to find somewhere to leave your materials on campus. Happily for graduate students, dedicated study areas are available for Master’s and PhD enrollees, and there are often a limited number of lockers for rent. Check if your institution has a Graduate Hub.

Eating out

Tipping?

Huge question. Not going to lie. My monkish habits meant that I ate out fairly seldom, but from what I’ve been able to ascertain… it depends where you go. Some restaurants automatically add a service charge to the bill, which you can decline if you wish, while others expect you to select the tipping option at the time of payment. Check the menu, check your bill, and, if in doubt, ask your server.

The “Tesco Meal Deal”

Now, this is more in my wheelhouse. Many’s a time I hungered for a sandwich in a triangular box accompanied by a miniature fruit salad, and Tesco came to my aid. It won’t help your sodium levels, but ₤3 will get you sandwich, snack, and drink, any time of the day or night.

The British Library

Welcome to the Happiest Place on Earth. No, not Disneyland. The British Library, Valhalla for the excessively bookish.

Reader Card

If you’re in a PhD, then you’re in luck! All doctoral students at London universities receive a free reader card for the BL for the duration of their studies. What is a reader card, you ask? Only your ticket into the glorious reading rooms, temples of Geekdom to which you can order any item in the Library’s collections. Speaking of which…

Collections

What can I say? They’re like the book equivalent of Brad Pitt and Albert Einstein having a baby: it’s all there. Aside from its incredible archives and special collections, the BL is one of the UK’s legal deposit libraries, meaning it automatically acquires any book published in the jurisdiction. And it’s not only books. Check out the Treasures Gallery and the regular exhibitions. They even have an enigma machine outside the Turing Institute. Just there. Hanging out.

The first time you enter a Reading Room

Here’s the thing though. You’ve arrived at the Promised Land. Don’t trip on the threshold. The rules of the Library are many. You want into those gilded reading rooms? Be prepared to surrender coats, bags, and pens. Leave them in the cloakroom or the downstairs lockers. Water bottle? What are you?! Crazy?! If it’s wet, or if it doesn’t fit in the transparent bags, be prepared for one of the eagle-eyed security guards at the room doors to tell you to take a hike.

Also, nothing can be issued to you until you have a desk. So your first order of business upon gaining entry is to secure a seat (throw elbows only if absolutely necessary). Memorise your desk number, and produce it and your reader card when you go to the circulation desk for your items. And, if you want to remain unslapped, do not chat to the people around you.

The local idiom

The “viva”

For PhD students, allow me to clarify that this means “defence” (i.e. your final thesis examination). Now you, unlike me, will not spend the first three months of your degree pretending to know what people are talking about when they say, “Of course, it will be very important for your viva.”

“Trousers” vs. “pants”

Now, there are many linguistic differences between England and other anglophone countries on which I could focus in this section, but, as it’s caused me a lot of heartache, I’m choosing the age-old “trousers/pants” distinction. In North America, “pants” are clothing of the “outside” variety, be they formal, yoga, or cargo. In England, they’re not. They are strictly in the “inside,” personal clothing category. What everyone can see are your “trousers.” Use this knowledge well. Then, you’ll avoid the retrospective shame of falling off your bike on the Tottenham Court Road and assuring the kind men who help you to your feet that you’re not hurt because you’re “wearing pants.” I was two blocks away before I realised my mistake.

None of us know what London, or graduate education, will look like in the post-Covid-19 era. But I hope that, whatever and however you study, the information above will help you navigate a new city and life. Good luck!

Sarah Gibbs, PhD Candidate, Goodenough College Member 2017-2020

If you enjoyed Sarah’s article check out her top tips on studying for a PhD.