We stayed in a tall narrow home on a steep street of tall narrow homes in a neighborhood called West Hampstead, north and west of London’s downtown. People walk there, carrying packages from the bakery or the butcher, waiting at corners to hop on red double-decker buses, holding umbrellas against the rain. Every house has a small brick courtyard, most with flower pots and rose bushes, 64 front doors painted in glossy bright colors. The rooftops march in random squares and triangles down the street, here a skylight, there a gable, everywhere a chimney pot. Front door, courtyard, sidewalk, street—five quick steps—but the overall impression is shady, green, like dollhouses set in rows in a garden. From a high rear window in our flat, you could see their verdant backyards, rows of thin rectangles sloping, each tidy, bordered by trees and well-tended bushes, a different sort of flower for each house. Although city traffic was never far, mostly we could hear the raucous birds, a never-ending song fest just outside.
We left the windows open day and night; the breeze was fresh and cool.
We listened to a neighbor child and his mum, their English voices high and lilting, sprinkled with laughter.
We learned to catch the bus—the 139 or the 113, depending; where to find bread and milk, the best Thai or scones or fish and chips. We held tight to the bar on swaying subways, smiled at dark-eyed little boys with immigrant mothers, scrambled through crowded tube stations while professional buskers crooned Neapolitan opera or Jamaican reggae.
In the station, it costs 50 pence to use the loo; I pulled out an extra coin for the homeless man, sitting ragged round the corner.
We went to see the great museums, saw astonishing artifacts:
- the death mask of Napoleon
- the pock-marked frieze of the Parthenon (rescued from careless target practice)
- the Codex Sinaiticus (oldest extant copy of the New Testament)
- the Magna Carta
- careful, curly-scripted Bibles in Old English, unreadable to modern eyes, the life work of Wycliffe and Tyndale.
We saw the Rosetta Stone, where one day a long-suffering scholar with a headache saw a pattern—familiar Greek unlocking Egyptian hieroglyphs. He gasped, ran pell-mell across town to share the news, collapsed and fell into a coma.
We saw a tiny figurine labeled, “Hermione,” made by the Grainger porcelain factory. Did J.K. Rowling stand here?
We scratched the surface.
The un-London, un-English artifacts that stretch for acres within marble halls could never capture my attention in the way that the stories of these city streets can. I came to see England, and will save Egypt for another trip. To stand on St. Paul’s steps and hear about John Donne’s battered heart, or wander through Westminster past the kings and queens of centuries—now I am awake.
We heard a bagpipe playing in Westminster.
We floated down the Thames.
We visited the Houses of Parliament and laughed to hear of stodgy English customs.
Did you know that every year at the State Opening of Parliament, the queen’s representative (called “the Usher of the Black Rod” for his/her big black stick) heads to the House of Commons to invite MPs to attend the queen’s speech, and promptly has the door slammed in their face? Every year.
The queen who? Slam.
This is evidently to remind the queen to remember her place and not get too big for her queenie britches. You can actually reach up and touch the great scuffed dent in the door where every year the black rod bangs in protest.
We went for a tour with a merry man named Ben—joyful, but always with a sympathetic lump in the throat for hundred-years’-dead sorrowful souls. He told us of a little chimney sweep stuck for six hours in a tarred-and-sooty chimney, of all the little preschool-aged kids who perished in such a terrifying way, and of a forgotten crusader who fought such inhumane conditions. Lord Shaftesbury gave his life away for chimney sweeps, with love. What do I spend my days on?
Ben told us familiar stories of John Newton and William Wilberforce, the men my husband has for seven years studied. But this time we sat on pews in St. Mary Woolnoth, Newton’s church, to hear of our repentant hero. We sang “Amazing Grace,” or would have, if we could have got the words out. He took us down the street, where Newton’s heartbroken, suicidal niece was locked in Bedlam (yes, that Bedlam, the mental institution), told us how Newton walked those same long steps day after day—old, blind, nearing death—to wave his handkerchief until she returned the wave from her window.
I wonder about the friend who took him by the arm for this pointless mission of compassion, rain or shine. Did he feel exasperated? Did he urge the old pastor to stay inside for his health? Did his eyes shine, too, with tears, as ours did?
But after all of the city sights, my introvert’s heart sighed with pleasure to spend a few hours one afternoon in a quiet corner of the park. One of the many parks, I should say, and thousands of acres of greenery. We followed twisting unmarked paths, tracing a route on our cell phone (and hoping we wouldn’t lose service), to find the Hill Garden Park and Pergola. How can I describe it? Imagine Mr. Darcy imploring Elizabeth to end his agony on a weathered stone gazebo heaped with climbing roses. Now imagine Cair Paravel. Put the two together and you might have an idea of this place, tucked behind a grand manor in a thicket of dense woods. That spot of startling beauty in a city teeming with noise was my favorite bit of London.
And isn’t that always the way it is? The best road is the one “less traveled by,” while everyone else’s attention is drawn to the shiny stuff next door. Find the little places, the forgotten churches, the bargain bakeries; find the quiet bench beneath a tree. It may be that while the masses stand in line to pay tickets, you’ll save a few dollars and save your feet a blister.
Unlike travel, joy is nearly always free.