There is a popular shop on the Shambles in York that sells little ceramic ghosts. You can’t walk far in that ancient neighborhood without realizing that ghosts are a big business with the tourists. But I didn’t know about the fairies in York, until I stumbled upon them one summer morning while walking along the bank of the River Foss.
Although I never actually saw any fairies, it could have been because they were asleep among the blackberries. While I would never intentionally disturb them, I certainly wasn’t tempted to look for them and risk getting tangled up in the thorns. Nevertheless, they seemed to go all out to make visitors feel welcome, even if they were not there to greet anyone personally.
The fairies had placed informational signs on the ground, leaning against the trees. Sometimes a plaque was hung on a trunk a few inches up from the base. I suppose that was as high as a tall fairy could reach while standing on a ladder. As I made my way along the riverbank, I enjoyed reading about the magical properties of the plants that grew there. I learned a lot that day.
It was exciting to be back in the amazing city of London. The last time I had been there was in the winter, mere days before the lockdowns went into effect. Never having been there in summer, I didn’t know if the large crowds I was seeing at my usual haunts were normal for this time of year or a pent-up response to the end of quarantines, social distancing, and masks. Maybe it was the hype from the Queen’s Jubilee, even though those celebrations had already ended.
Wouldn’t you know it, England was having a heatwave and a drought. No matter. I did not let 90℉ (32℃) temperatures slow me down. For centuries, St. James’s Park has been the place to go to see and be seen, and in all of the world, it is one of my favorite green spaces. When I first got to London, it still had temporary fences, walls, and partitions set up from the Jubilee events, restricting access to the roads and paths, making them feel especially jammed with tourists. The water in the ponds was overgrown with algae, and some of the gardens and lawns looked to be stressed from the lack of rain. But the birds and waterfowl were friendly enough.
On my last night in England, I happened to click on the Health app icon on my iPhone. I had never looked at it before and certainly had not set it up. To my surprise, I discovered that it had been tracking my steps. My first day in London, I had walked more than eight miles, and on the second day I walked more than nine! On average, I had walked five miles a day, and that included some entire days when I was sitting in the reading rooms at the National Archives, doing research for the biography I am writing about a British soldier.
There is something extraordinarily energizing about London. My normal routine at home is to get out and walk several days a week, just to stretch my legs, while getting some fresh air and a little exercise. As much as I enjoy walking, after about 20 minutes I have usually had enough. Twenty-minutes in London is barely even a start. The streets in the central city are not laid out on a grid, so I have a tendency to get lost. Then I double down by indulging the urge to see what is beyond a gate, or through an arch, or at the end of a tunnel, or in the middle of a town square.
One autumn, I was in London for a few days, and I realized that I would not be able to go to the opera performance that I had a ticket for. I went to the Royal Opera House box office to exchange it. The young man who helped me told me that I was in luck. The best seat in the house happened to be available for the night I wanted to attend. He had no idea why it had not been snapped up, because usually the theatre executives would clamor for it when they saw it had not been sold.
The night of the opera, I found myself sitting next to a very elegant older woman, whose companion was a handsome young man. We spoke to each other during the intermission, and she mentioned that she was a season ticket holder. I told her I was visiting and that I loved London. She looked at me like she thought I was crazy. “Why?” she asked. Her question caught me off guard. “Because of all of the parks,” I replied. That really was the first thing that popped into my head, but I got the feeling that I passed a test. She nodded thoughtfully. “Yes,” she said. “I live near Regent’s Park.”
London, like any big city, has its flaws. But it has the River Thames, the Royal parks, the Palace of Westminster, the Horse Guards, the National Gallery, and innumerable streets and squares and historic buildings that call to me. Every time I am there, I return to them. Life is what we make of it. A two-and-a-half year pause can never be reclaimed. I was fortunate to be able to go back to a place I longed to see again. Perhaps I am luckier than many.