Arts·I He(art) My City

Forests, rowdy nightlife and one slippery sea lion: An artist's guide to falling in love with London

London is much more than just a college town or pit stop between the metropolises of Detroit and Toronto. Writer Oliver Skinner is here to guide you through it.

Writer Oliver Skinner is here to show you that London is much more than just a college town or pit stop

(CBC Arts)

Everyone knows about the art scenes in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver — but what about Calgary, Yellowknife or Saint John? In CBC Arts's continuing series "I He(art) My City," a local artist offers an insider's guide to the city they call home. Here, writer Oliver Skinner shows you his London.

To some, London, Ontario may not appear to be much more than a pit stop between the metropolises of Detroit and Toronto. Yet, as the 2019 JUNO Awards and the spotlight they shone upon London proved, when it comes to vibrant cultural scenes, the mid-sized city is a covert major player.

Whether you're a resident looking to expose yourself to some arts and culture, or a stranded visitor in desperate need of an itinerary: here is my London.

Springbank Park

Springbank Park. (Oliver Skinner)

This 300-acre park stretches along the border of the Thames River, linking a variety of neighbourhoods throughout the city. As preteens, my friend Nicole and I often hit Springbank's trails on our bikes to head downtown and stock up on used books or go to the movies. When the weather is favourable, the park is populated by picnickers, runners, skaters and families heading to Storybook Gardens, a nursery rhyme-themed children's park.

Storybook Gardens. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

If you're wondering what the bronze statue of a sea lion near Storybook Gardens' entrance signifies, it actually makes for an engrossing saga. The park was once the abode of Slippery, a California-bred sea lion who, in 1958, mysteriously escaped the confines of the park, plunged into the Thames River and swam all the way to Lake St. Clair, through the Detroit River and across Lake Erie. Slippery was eventually discovered at the mouth of Ohio's Maumee River — a solid 400km from his starting point, and almost a direct route back to his birthplace. About half of London's population lined the streets to witness Slippery's return.

Covent Garden Market

Covent Garden Market. (Oliver Skinner)

By this point, readers will have noticed the amount of London landmarks named for their British progenitors. And although I've never stepped foot in London, England's famed Covent Garden, I wouldn't hesitate to call our version a worthy successor. The indoor market is brimming with local vendors selling fresh produce, making it the ideal spot to do your groceries or grab lunch.

Original Kids Theatre. (Oliver Skinner)

The market's mezzanine is home to the Original Kids Theatre Company, where I spent many an adolescent hour rehearsing and performing plays and musicals. Besides being a revered theatre training program for youth ranging from 8 to 18, the company offers London audiences the year-round opportunity to catch top-notch productions put on by budding talent. While many of its alumni — including Rachel McAdams — have gone on to successful careers, I have fond memories of OKTC fostering the importance of the ensemble and giving children a safe space to play and come into their own.

Live music downtown

London Music Hall of Fame. (Oliver Skinner)

After playing host to the JUNO Awards earlier this year, London's stature as a musical city has caught on nationwide. But any resident will tell you that that spirit has been present from the get-go. The JUNOs ceremony was held at Budweiser Gardens, which serves as the city's main venue for major acts passing through on tour. But if you're here for the summer, almost every other weekend presents the occasion to revel in live music outdoors.

Reggae artist Lazo at Sunfest. (Sunfest)

Sunfest puts together a diverse roster of artists from across the globe to perform for free each year at Victoria Park. Harris Park sets the stage for Rock the Park, a popular music festival which routinely lands massive names (recent headliners include Snoop Dogg and Cyndi Lauper). The London Music Hall of Fame on Dundas Street is devoted to telling the story of London's musical history. And construction is currently underway on Dundas Place, a pedestrian-motorist flex street that acted as London's inaugural Jurassic Park during the NBA playoffs, and which will no doubt be the site of countless concerts in the near future.

Richmond Row

The Ceeps. (Oliver Skinner)

London is a college town, so when the school year picks up each September you can count on its nightlife to follow suit, for better or for worse. Western University was the only Canadian school this decade to make Playboy Magazine's list of the top 10 party schools, and you can see it living up to its rowdy reputation any Friday or Saturday night on Richmond Row, a downtown strip of restaurants, bars and clubs.

While I'll steer clear of the strip if I'm not in the mood for drunk university students, it does feature some staples of London's nightlife, from the lineup of people waiting to get into Joe Kool's to the patio of The Ceeps, a historic tavern that first opened its doors over a century ago. Pro tip: sober up after a night on Richmond Row at Stobie's, a beloved pizzeria that serves generously-sized slices.

Hyland Cinema

Hyland Cinema. (Facebook/Hyland Cinema)

Growing up, this independently-owned cinema served as a bit of a sanctuary to me. It was the only place in town where I could watch each year's winner of the Cannes Film Festival's Palme d'Or on the big screen, including The Tree of Life three times in the span of a week. I also have cherished memories of assembling groups of friends for packed midnight screenings of cult classics like Blue Velvet and Dazed and Confused.

I must give a shoutout to Imagine (fka Rainbow) Cinemas, where I once held a job scooping popcorn and which remains an affordable and more laidback alternative to Cineplex. If you're around in October, be sure to check out the Forest City Film Festival, which showcases projects produced by filmmakers from Southwestern Ontario. And in May, catch the London Lesbian Film Festival — the longest-running film fest of its kind.

Old East Village

Palace Theatre. (Oliver Skinner)

A brief stroll from downtown, Old East Village is filled with restaurants and shops well worth wandering off the beaten path to discover. It's also where you'll find the Palace Theatre, which recently unveiled plans to merge the London Community Players and the London Fringe Festival to form a powerhouse theatrical organization in the city. Before or after a night of theatre at the Palace, you'll have no regrets by crossing the street to Unique Food Attitudes, a cozy Polish eatery with a mouthwatering menu.

Kains Woods

Kains Woods. (London Tourism)

London is nicknamed the Forest City. As someone who grew up in newly developed suburbs on the outskirts of town, so much of my meandering adolescence involved purposefully getting lost in the forest along the banks of the Thames. The Kains Woods conservation area holds a place in my heart simply because it was where I spent so much of my time idling about, shooting short films with friends and crossing paths with deer and wild turkey. Although housing developments like the one I inhabited are aggressively widening the city borders every day, London boasts a multitude of secluded nature paths that pose the perfect getaway whenever you need a breather.

So, if any of the inner city destinations I've highlighted aren't hitting the spot — or, frankly, if London is just not for you — I'd recommend both long-time Londoners and tourists alike try making like Thoreau and wandering deep into the woods, far, far away from civilization. Even when I feel most at home I am no stranger, like Slippery the vagabond sea lion, to standing at the water's edge and contemplating where it might carry me if I dived in.