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Moresby Meanders Observations From an Ongoing Journey

Tips on How to Survive London on a Working Holiday Visa

UNITED KINGDOM | Sunday, 9 November 2014 | Views [1049]

Multifaceted, ever-changing, often fickle; London is defined by it’s pace, density, and diversity. Multicultural and inclusive here, homogenous and exclusive there, but most often both, side by side. Neighbourhoods offering overpriced continental delis, and champagne bars on one corner, offset by fast food takeaways, and scungy off-licence liquor stores on the next scatter the city. Rows of freshly renovated terrace houses front grim council estates. Some corners act as havens to intellectualism, art, and music, while others harbour stiff conservatism, ultra nationalism, and general ignorance. Businessmen and crackheads, cockneys and toffs, chavs and hipsters. London is massive; either you fall in to the right place and love it, or it casts you to the wayside.

When I first arrived in London two years ago to start my two year working holiday visa, I had never set foot on UK soil. From there I lived in one of the most impoverished boroughs of London, and did a brief stint in one of the most affluent. My work life encompassed everything from the most atrocious to the most enjoyable circumstances I have experienced. I rode with the ups and downs of navigating this vast city. Met some its kindest inhabitants, and argued with a few of its most obnoxious. Many a night on the town was spent on disappointment, while others revealed the sweet juicy hedonistic indulgence of the best that London has to offer; fine food, art, music, and some of the best beer in the world.

A city of this scale has a lot of lessons to teach and most of them come the hard way. For me it took a good year and a half to feel settled, find a decent job, good friends, and scope out the places I liked spending my time - six months later it was time to pack up shop and hit the road…

Could it have all gone a little more smoothly? Could I have found my place sooner and enjoyed a few more of the fruits this city has to offer? Sure, but as we all know, hindsight’s 20/20. So, now with a small slice of experience with this city under my belt, I thought it advantageous to humbly offer a few nuggets of advice for those considering making the move to London to live on a working holiday visa.

First and foremost, take a few weeks to scope out where you best fit in the city. Greater London covers a huge area and it can take hours to travel end to end. It can take even longer if the area you are living in or traveling to is poorly serviced by public transport. Living in or close to the area(s) where you work and socialise is important. Finding a place where your needs and obligations can be met on the back of a bicycle comes second best. The cash, time, and general sanity spared in minimising time on the bus and tube pays back in dividends! Look out for jobs that cooperate with the cycle to work initiative, and find access to your local Greenway if there is one nearby. Just be sure to strap on a helmet, because London is yet to become fully bicycle friendly, and drivers still have a tendency to mow down anything not motorised.

Finding a place to call home is not easy. There are lots of share houses in London, and many spare rooms online. Check the average cost of a room in the area before taking up an offer. Landlords are notoriously unreliable, agents shady, and it pays to have a good hangout with potential housemates before moving in. Horror stories from friends and workmates include months without hot water, finding that the room rented is also shared with another five people, and being stabbed in the leg by a less than friendly housemate.

Websites such as uk.freecyle.org and Gumtree are a great source of free furniture. In addition there are more meet-up and personal interest groups in London than you can poke a stick at. Yes, some things are free in London.

In terms of work, don’t immediately look in the city centre or famous areas like Camden and Notting Hill. Often establishments in these areas are overwhelmingly profit driven with little care for their staff. Service in these areas is high volume and stressful, and you will often have to deal with grumpy, rude customers. Looking for work on the outskirts of central London will often garner better results in terms of work satisfaction.

Look out for employers with zero hour contracts, and beware that a salary, when counting the hours the role actually entails can result in earning significantly less than minimum wage.

Obviously when finding work, sometimes you just need to get some cash coming in. When doing a trial for a hospitality job, always check with workmates about working conditions. A few establishments will give you a free meal during your shift but the majority wont, and this can make a real difference to surplus cash at the end of the week, or alternately how emaciated one looks at the end of the month. Tips are not guaranteed and if you get them, they are taxed… If you end up taking a job that is no good, don’t feel bad about dropping it. There is a lot of mobility in the hospitality industry in London. Make some connections, don’t burn your bridges, and in the meantime just drink as much discounted beer as you can.

Most importantly, think about the travel you want to do while you are in the country. If you are coming from Australia or somewhere where the living wage is higher, try to save as much money as you can before making the move. As discussed, wages are low and living expensive, so any extra cash you may have will disappear quickly. Before you know it, the dream of that trip to Dublin, the weekend on the beach in Brighton, and that Interrail trip around Europe have all but evaporated.

Granted you have planned and saved well, London is a great home base to travel European and other countries, but be sure to keep a log of the dates that you exit and re-enter the country. You will find that when it comes to tax time HM Revenue and Customs want to know where you have been, and for how long. Some evidence that you have or haven’t been working in these countries may be required for tax purposes. Also, when planning trips be sure to check carefully the flight times for cheap tickets from all airports. The cheapest and/or earliest flights can often require hours of travel on public transport to arrive at the airport. Sometimes it’s best to just pay the few pounds extra and take a later flight.

If you are planning to travel through the UK, do it early. Many would argue that if you are going to move to the UK on a working holiday visa, your time would be best spent divided between London and another city, or even skipping London altogether. Truth be told, you might just find that another city in the UK is more your cup of tea - but for the most part, London is where it’s at, and for good reason.

The essence of London is found in the definitively urban nature of the city, the people’s intense individualism, the vast contrasts between rich and poor, the proud culture of true Londoners, and the many colourful characters that drift in and out of it’s populace. For young people the borough of Hackney in the East and places like Brixton in the South abound with restaurants, pubs, clubs, galleries, and trendy pop-ups. For the quieter life, the North and Western suburbs offer some sanctuary. For me satisfaction was found in grabbing a beer in one of the many great tap rooms such as Mother Kelly’s in Bethnal Green, or a meal in one of the top notch, but less pretentious restaurants like 10 Greek St in Soho, catching the Sunday night Jazz at the Haggerston in Dalston, or just soaking up some summer sun in one of London’s many parks.

Basically, if you want it, you can find it in London. There are a few pitfalls to watch out for, but at the end of the day, if you look hard enough, anyone can find a place in this city to call home. Keep the aforementioned tips in mind and it should all fall into place fairly easily and you are bound to find your own slice of the good life that London has to offer.

Tags: london, uk, working holiday visa



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