London, Again

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.

Pelicans at St. James's Park
Pelicans in St. James’s Park

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. 

National Archives
National Archives

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.” 

St. James's Park
St. James’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.

Theatre Royal Haymarket
Theatre Royal Haymarket

Bloomsbury, London

Artists John Everett Millais, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and William Holman Hunt founded the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in 1848 in this house in London, where Mr. Millais grew up. The hotel where I stayed in the past week was just a few doors down. Between my time spent in museums, the National Archives, and the British Library doing research for my new book, and walking through this beautiful neighborhood, I thoroughly indulged my passions for history, art, and classic architecture! 

#AMoonGarden https://amzn.to/2v4uXwF

London Home of John Everett Millais
©Roxane Gilbert