The year was 1996, and perhaps as a way of getting my mind off a traumatic attempted hijacking earlier in the year (thankfully, nobody was hurt), my parents allowed us a trip to London…and they weren’t coming with.
The group consisted of myself (16 at the time), my cousin (a few years younger), my 18 year old brother (the ‘responsible one’ of us all), and another cousin (also 18).
My mother made us plan an elaborate itinerary months before we left, so that we would get the most out of the trip, and not waste our time (and their money 😉 ).
And, though we had been to London a few times before, we’d never had to think about navigation ourselves because our parents always handled that for us. So we spent a lot of time learning how to get around using the tube (underground trains) – which is a daunting task even for some adults. I put that responsibility on my brother, though. He was in charge of figuring out our routes, and us younger ones barely had to do any thinking when it came to travel.
I did make note of our landmarks, though. The BT Tower helped guide us back to our accommodation, and Centre Point always guided us back to the familiarity of Tottenham Court Road (which was our main route to Oxford Street).
Anyway, so we left one mid-December evening – for what would become the most fun 2 week holiday of my youth.
We honoured the itinerary in the first week, visiting the tourist hot spots such as Buckingham Palace, Madame Tussauds, the London Dungeon, and more.
But for me, the highlight was the shopping on Oxford Street – which felt impossibly long to me at the time. These were days when I was in the early stages of a growing music addiction, and giant stores like HMV Oxford Street (which was subsequently downgraded to a far smaller site, and is now completely closed) and the Virgin Megastore, were a dream come true: multiple levels of endless CDs (many of which were not available in South Africa), tons of movies (in VHS format back then), and games upon games.
It was an age of football fever, too, so Championship Manager – a management simulation – was my obsession at the time. I was ecstatic to get the new season update during one of my many visits to an HMV. My younger cousin and I also got AC Milan shirts – complete with our favourite players’ names and numbers on the back. I still have mine, and it fits me – almost 26 years later – even if it’s a little tight.
We even managed to take a day trip up to Old Trafford, since we were ardent Manchester United fans. The stadium tour was amazing, but unfortunately we couldn’t get into the dressing room. There was a match a few days later, and – to maintain a sterile environment – the club didn’t allow visitors into the area so close to match days. My brother still maintains that he saw Eric Cantona driving outside the stadium that day, but I’ve never believed him.
Week 2 was the most fun, however. We’d stay up late at night, watching football and stuffing ourselves with junk food. We’d get up late in the morning, wrestle in the rooms (just one lamp suffered the consequences thereof), and eat generous amounts of Pizza Hut.
Best of all, though, were the hours upon hours we spent in the newly-opened SegaWorld, at the Trocadero in Leicester Square.
It was this incredible 6-floor entertainment centre, housing a multi-level arcade, rides, a virtual reality attraction (which was cutting edge back in 1996), as well as shops. For kids with money to spend (our currency wasn’t quite so weak back then), time on our hands, and no parents forcing us to do site-seeing (which we’d already done the previous week), it was perfect. My favourite game in there was a penalty shootout kind of setup. Like many other games there, we’d get printed tickets based on how well we did in the games. I don’t remember what we traded the tickets for in the end, but it it’s anything like the stuff in the arcades here, it would have been cheap rubbish. But that didn’t matter. It wasn’t about the prizes. It was just fun. Pure fun. Unaccompanied, unrestricted fun.
The centre didn’t last too long, but given that we were there a few months after its opening, we got to experience it in its heyday, and it was magical.
Of course, there were conflicts at times, but we all survived, and we didn’t get kicked out of our self-catering accommodation – owned by a nice old Italian man.
The freedom was amazing for me at that age, and the fact that we could explore this world famous city on our own was a gift that I think I didn’t really appreciate enough at the time.
I don’t think we have many (or any) pictures from that trip (I recall the camera film being exposed to light and ruined), but it doesn’t matter. Because those 2 weeks – the memories – are worth more. They’re priceless. It was freedom. Total, utter freedom…all at the age of 16.
Nowadays, I don’t think many parents would dream of sending their kids alone to a foreign land. Child trafficking is reaching alarming proportions internationally, and one could argue that the world is a far more sinister and dangerous place than it was back in the mid-90s.
Still, dangers did exist back then, so we were fortunate to get through the holiday without any harm…(though my younger cousin and I did get sucked into doing a Dianetics questionnaire when we were alone on a street one day 😉 ).