London was a storybook. It was six days of pure magic.
London is another city I have loved from afar, primarily through literature. For so long, London was the center of Western cultural production, and, for good and bad, the center of the Western literary canon that I devoured in my childhood. This city showed up, again and again, in the books I read and the histories to which I was drawn. Harry Potter visits, as do the Dashwood sisters (Sense & Sensibility). Dracula is entirely about the threat and defense of London as the heart of the British Empire, and all of Shakespeare is influenced by the city in which his plays were first performed. I even wrote my senior thesis about London, and the role Sherlock Holmes’s played in demystifying the sprawling metropolis.
My desire to see London has been so strong for so long that I can remember a specific, physical ache in my chest that came when I thought about London. A few days before we left, my dad heard me telling someone where we’d be traveling. From behind me, I heard him say she’s always wanted to see London.
On our first night in London, I cried on the Tower Bridge. We left our hotel for a walk. We weren’t navigating towards it, but within a ten minutes, it started to rise up in front of us. The Tower Bridge, and to our right, the Tower of London.
It was the view of the Thames that got me. We stopped on the bridge to look out over the river, and in that view, I recognized everything—the bridges crossing the river, the castles and palaces and government strongholds alongside these towers of chrome and glass. Even the cranes and scaffolding were familiar, a city built on its own preservation. The sun was sinking, its light breaking to dust and gold along the river. It wasn’t just that I’d seen the image in photos and films (though I had), but the thought that wouldn’t leave me that night. I kept thinking this is the city of all my books. This city I’ve dreamed of for so long.
In New York, I couldn’t get my hands around the city, and maybe that’s because the island is so condensed. Stories piled onto one another, one community’s history bulldozed to make way for another's. London, however, is sprawling. It doesn’t stack. It widens and spreads. I felt the same massive wonder, but none of the overwhelm. All this beauty? All this magic? I felt I could feel it in my hand, collect it, carry it with me.
What did we do in London? We did so much, and yet so little. We walked miles and miles every day. (For context, on our lightest day, we walked 10 miles). If Chris and I discovered one thing on the earlier legs of our travel, it was that we needed to walk a city to know a city. After the first night, I almost an aversion to leaving the streets of London. On this first ever visit, I didn’t want to disengage with the wonder of seeing the city unfold by blocks and boroughs. Everyday, we walked until our feet ached. (Or, in my case, broke into itching hives that needed night soakings in our hotel sink).
We saw London from the pavement: the Tower Bridge, the London Eye, Houses of Parliament, (but not Big Ben; he’s under construction), Trafalgar Square, Westminster Abbey, Buckingham and Kensington Palaces, Notting Hill, King’s Cross, Brick Lane, St. Paul’s Cathedral, the Globe Theatre. We visited Old Spitalfields Market twice, strolled Whitechapel Road on our first morning and Greenwich on our last, braved the sweating crowds at Camden Market, and browsed three floors at John Sandoe Books. We also spent a quiet morning wandering the Inns of Court, quiet courtyards behind Old Bailey (Central Criminal Court of England and Wales) home to the professional organizations to which all barristers, to this day, are required to belong, and another in Belgravia, a parade of marble and flower boxes, empty on Saturday morning.
We still hit quite a few of the big sites and museums. We couldn't be in London, and not see where Anne Boleyn was executed or the princes in the tower were murdered. Even without seeing the crown jewels (the lines, people, the lines), the Tower of London was worth the half day spent there. The Tate Modern was thought provoking, as was the British Museum, but both were too crowded to spent too much time in. The National Gallery was a feast, and I spent the majority of my time walking between the John Constables and the J.M.W. Turners, both men masters of brush and light in their own ways. Ever since reading Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent about a foreign spy’s plan to bomb the Greenwich Mean Tower, I’ve wanted to see the Royal Observatory, and I’m so glad we made it on our final day. We visited Hyde, Regent's, Greenwich and St. James royal parks, and each was lovely in its own right (especially after we learned England doesn’t have open carry laws, and park vendors sell Pimm’s). The Churchill War Rooms were unparalleled. I did not realize, until we got there, that the museum is housed in the actual, steel and concrete insulated room where Churchill conducted British operations during WWII. We spent hours in the bunker, and still I I left with a diary from one of the secretaries who worked in the War Rooms, wanting to know more.
As far as food goes, our hands-down favorite was Rum Kitchen, a small Caribbean spot nestled behind the Logan Mews in Notting Hill. After the crowds of Portobello Road Market, we needed respite, and between the cool room, the rum, and the food (oh, the food), we were all three in heaven. For the rest of the week, Chris kept asking “remember Rum Kitchen? Is it too early to miss Rum Kitchen?” Another surprise favorite, delivered by Google maps, was the Mulberry Bush, quiet spot near our hotel with traditional British food and an atmosphere that felt like pub-cozy for the twenty-first century. Other standouts were everything we had in the Borough Market, breakfast at Popina in Mayfair, and cocktails at The Booking Office, gorgeous bar in the original reservation office for St. Pancras Station.
Perhaps my favorite experience of London (and definitely the reason we walked so much) was that everywhere we were, we were within blocks of something grand and historic. Over and over, we’d look for an Underground station, and realize we were a half mile from this palace or that monument, and why not just walk a little extra to see Buckingham; we were in London.
I fell in love with London in a way I haven’t fallen in love with a place since I visited Seattle at eighteen. I cried when we arrived, and when we left, I cried again. The city was, again and again, an experience of wonder. When I got home, someone asked “do you remember how London smells like fresh gardens?” I have a small sprig of pressed lavender from Hyde’s Park to remind me.
On our final day, I had with me the sense of an ending. We’d spent that leg of the trip with Chris’s best friend. Parting with him made me feel like we were all be moving towards our next. Like this was the closing of one chapter of our lives. Even the weather was starting to turn. After six bright, hot days, we experience our first and only rain, and as we crossed the Tower Bridge a final time, the breeze off the Thames was cool and strong. More signs of a changing season.
Our leaving London was the first leaving of many to come. Leave London on Tuesday, Dublin on Friday. Say goodbye to friends on Saturday. Put everything we own into a trailer on Sunday. Finish the job I’ve loved and turn in keys to the apartment that gave me a home on Monday. Leave the Twin Cities for a final night at our parents houses, and then on Tuesday, get up and leave again. This time, our parents’ homes, the states we were raised in, and the lives we’ve been building for 26 and 24 years.
I cried for our endings, sitting beneath the hulk of the Tate Modern, my head on Chris’s shoulder. So much in front us, yes, but so much we were putting behind us. I needed the moment to say goodbye.