What happened to London's Aussie expats?

Meeting place ... the Walkabout in Shepherd's Bush, London, has closed its doors.
Meeting place ... the Walkabout in Shepherd's Bush, London, has closed its doors. Photo: Julian Andrews

As a symbol of Australian expat life in London, you couldn't do much better than the Shepherd's Bush Walkabout.

The notorious Aussie pub embodied all that was good and bad about the Antipodean scene in Britain's capital: snakebite pints at 10 in the morning; AFL grand finals with your mates; drunken hook-ups with girls from Adelaide; calling in sick for State of Origin; a little slice of home in a foreign city.

You'll note the past tense, because things in London have obviously changed: the SheBu Walkie has closed. It's gone. No more. It served its final Fosters last Saturday night. It mopped up its last sneaky vomit; it kicked out its ultimate Aussie drunk.

And that's not all. TNT, the backpackers' Bible, the required reading for anyone in London with an Aussie, Kiwi or South African passport, has been put into administration. It used to be that every three-bedroom flat in Putney would have a copy of TNT on the kitchen bench, well thumbed by every one of the household's 46 Australian tenants, but that won't be happening any more.

Shocking, right? Former holders of UK working visas from the 90s and early naughties will surely be shaking their heads at the sad downfall of these backpacking institutions. What's next? The Redback? The Australia Shop?

Actually, the Redback closed last year. And the Australia Shop closed this year, in April, meaning thousands of people now have to look elsewhere for their Milo and Tim Tams. And the original Walkabout, the one in Covent Garden, closed its doors in March, meaning thousands of people now have to get their pints of Fosters from ... well, any other pub.

What's going on, London? Have you changed?

Not really. It's not London that's changed, it's the Australian visitors. The long-termers. Icons like TNT and the SheBu Walkie haven't failed because there aren't any Aussies around any more; they've failed because those Aussies want something else from London life.

They've grown up. It used to be that the expat scene was dominated by 18- or 19-year-old backpackers who were happy to pull pints and lay bricks for a living; they'd piss up their pay every weekend, then suddenly realise that their two years were up and they'd barely left Fulham. Cue a last-minute whip around Europe, and then the long flight back to the real world.

Those guys are still there, but they're far from alone. London is also home to plenty of professionals, older Australian residents who might once have been Walkie drinkers, but now have good jobs, career prospects, decent houses and occasionally families. They don't drink at the Walkie; they eat at St John.

For most Australian travellers, there has been a shift in dynamic. It used to be that everyone wanted to go to London to "do the expat thing", to hang out with like-minded Antipodeans and go crazy for a couple of years in expat enclaves. You'd surround yourself with other travellers and reminisce about how good it is back home, and moan about how crap the weather is over here. Cheers.

But travel has changed. The expats I've met in London in the last few years are far more likely to drink real ales at traditional British boozers than guzzle snakies at a Walkabout. They want to eat at good local restaurants rather than find a place that does a decent pie and mash. And they want to spend weekends taking cheap flights to continental Europe rather than do a Sunday session at the Aussie theme pub.

(About the only comfort of home that's still longed for seems to be coffee.)

There's been a geographical shift among London expats as well as a cultural one. While there are probably still plenty of Aussies clogging up flats in Shepherds Bush, Putney and Hammersmith, you're just as likely to hear that familiar 'Strayan twang in Islington, or Dalston, or Shoreditch, or Mile End.

People don't move to those suburbs to drink snakebites and flip through the TNT. They go to blend in to a multicultural city, to do the "London thing" rather than the "expat thing". They drink at trendy bars; they look up events in the more broadly focused Time Out.

You'd have to say it's a good thing. I could never understand the point of leaving home if you were just going to hang out with Australians and do Australian things. Obviously travellers are now letting go of the Aussie apron strings, going without their Tim Tams for a few years in favour of exploring a foreign culture.

The demise of the old institutions is a nostalgic indicator of that shift. It had to happen. And I'm sure you can still find somewhere showing the AFL.

Have you lived in London or visited Aussie expats there recently? Have you noticed a shift in the way Australian expats behave? Are you surprised to hear the news about the Walkabout and TNT? Have you lived in London previously? What was your experience like? Post your comments below.

Email: b.groundwater@fairfaxmedia.com.au

Instagram: instagram.com/bengroundwater

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