A few days after my dad departed Seattle for Minneapolis via British Columbia, Peter and I boarded a plane bound for London. This was my second trip to London since we moved from London to Seattle exactly two years and 51 weeks ago.
My first trip back to London was mostly terrible.
- It rained constantly
- I regrettably worked constantly
- I slept rarely
I told myself that I would not repeat my behavior this time around and vowed to wake up every morning at a normal time and force myself to workout, do tourist stuff and get the hell out of the hotel. What I learned is that London is a very different city when experienced as a tourist than when a resident.
I ate lunch at Old Spitalfields Market nearly every day. The food scene in London has improved exponentially since we lived there and there is so much variety – something I miss in Seattle. One afternoon, Peter and I were sitting at a bar adjacent to the market and I saw a wooden boat sculpture out of the corner of my eye. I walked over to the boat to see what it represented.
The sculpture is called “Wooden Boat with Seven People” and was completed in 2011 by Greek sculptor Kalliopi Lemos. It represents an authentic boat that was used to transport refugees from Turkey to the shores of the Greek islands. In the US, there is not enough coverage/attention given to the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean. This crisis has been ongoing since before we moved to London in 2011 and exploded whilst we lived there.
When we visit London, we stay in The City, known formally as The City of London and also nicknamed the Square Mile. The City of London is not to be confused with “London”. The City is a tiny portion of London – one square mile to be exact… or partially exact since the area is neither square nor exactly one square mile (1.12 sq mile). The City contains the historic centre and the primary central business area of London (“Financial District”).
The hotel we stay in is located a few steps north of the Tower of London. It is a good location for us because it is close to Peter’s office, however, as a tourist, I would advise against staying in The City or in this area. The City is a business district which means it is very busy during office business hours but is a ghost town after office hours and on the weekends. It is difficult to find restaurants and shops that are open outside of normal office hours.
One of the most surprising moments for me during our trip was seeing all of the tall buildings that have been built in Central London over the past five years. London is quickly becoming a mix of old and new and the skyline is growing taller with every visit.
We visited London during the 2018 FIFA World Cup where England played in the semi-finals. The city had the same energy as it did during the London 2012 Olympics.
There were TVs randomly set up in alleys and courtyards where people could temporarily stop and catch a glimpse of the match on their way home or to the pub or where ever they were going. Pubs were packed to the walls and people were peering through pub windows from the outside to watch the match. We went to dinner in Shoreditch the night of the semi-finals and the police had closed Shoreditch High Street to motor vehicle traffic in anticipation of a whole lot of revelry, regardless of the outcome.
One of my favorite scenes was the spectators sitting on “Boris Bikes” outside of a pub drinking beer and watching the match through the windows. Peter and I have tossed around the idea of moving back to London many times. It is still in the cards for us and would be an easy transition since we no longer have dogs and we know how things work across the pond. I miss the ease of life that came with living abroad. We had fewer things so less responsibility and less care. When we first moved to England, life was so hard for the first year but by the time we left nearly five years later, life was so easy.
I spent my days walking Dexter around Hampstead Heath. I biked everywhere. I liked our flat and the area we lived in (Islington). We traveled constantly. It was nice. And carefree.
Speaking of Dexter, one of the items on my London to-do list was to visit Dexter’s step-mum in Ascot. When we moved from Maidenhead to London, we still continued to take Dexter out to her house in the English countryside when we went on holiday. It was a journey that took us four hours each way but it was what had to be done. Dexter needed to be in the country whenever possible because this: It was like old times when I arrived at Ascot. Kate was at the train station waiting for me in her new car. She told me that she wanted my visit to be like old times which meant I had to run to her car – something I always did with Dexter because there was only a seven-minute gap between my arrival and my train back to London.
We swung by a coffee shop and I spent a few hours at her house with her dogs and one of Dexter’s best friend, Fly. Fly is not doing well these days which was hard to see. I’ve known Fly for seven years but the image of him in my head is frozen in time in 2015 when Dexter and I walked out of Kate’s house for the last time and Fly nudged my hand for one final goodbye. This is the thing when you see places or people you haven’t seen in a long time; you realize how your thoughts become frozen and you find yourself a little taken back when reality hits.
Another item on my London to-do list was to visit Hampstead Heath. Hampstead Heath is a park comparable in size to Central Park and is located in North London. It is a place many Londoners go to escape the hustle and bustle of the city.
When we lived in Islington, Dexter and I took the London Overground to Hampstead Heath every day. There are no leash laws in the UK so dogs are allowed to run off-leash in all parks but Hampstead Heath is something special. It is the English countryside in London.
They say that one of the best views of Central London is from an area of Hampstead Heath called Parliament Hill. I do not know how many times I have attempted to get “the best view of Central London” from Parliament Hill (12? 15? 20?) but I have failed every single time and have concluded that the view is nothing more than an urban legend.
First, visibility is never quite good enough. Second, Central London is too far away. Third, the shrubs and trees obstruct the view. Below is my most recent (and final) unedited attempt at “the best view of Central London” from Parliament Hill.
In my opinion, a better view of Central London is from the south bank of the River Thames between Millennium Bridge and Tower Bridge. I wanted to walk across Millennium Bridge because I thought I had never walked across it but I realized I had indeed walked across it as soon as I took my first step.
I took the photo below from Millennium Bridge facing east. The tall glass building on the right is The Shard. It opened in May 2014 when we were living in London. It was all the rage and now it seems like there are tall green-glass skyscrapers everywhere you look.
The sky in the photo above makes the weather look terrible but it was actually a perfect weather day. After crossing Millennium Bridge, I turned around to look back at the bridge and found the most magical view ever.
From Millennium Bridge, I walked east along the River Thames taking turns down narrow alleys and getting lost in the moment. On my way, I stumbled upon a sandwich board sign that read “POEMS. ONE TOPIC. PAY WHAT YOU LIKE.”
I checked out my cash situation and managed to shuffle out a Fiver from my backpack. I handed it over to the chain-smoking poet and said, “TRAVEL”. He replied, “SURE THING” and started pounding away on this typewriter with his index fingers only with a lit cigarette hanging from his mouth the majority of the time.
People started to crowd around as he transformed the thoughts in his head to text on paper. A few minutes later he ripped the paper out of the typewriter and handed it to me and said, “CHEERS”. I was not sure what to expect. What would the font look like? Would it rhyme? Would it be gibberish that made sense only to the poet?
The only thing I knew for sure was that the poem would eventually be framed and hung on a wall in our house. Sometimes it is the little moments that mean the most, even if it is gibberish that makes sense to no one but a chain-smoking poet on the south bank of the River Thames.
The last stop on my self-guided Get Lost River Thames walking tour was to cross the River Thames via Tower Bridge. By the time I arrived at Tower Bridge, the cloudy gray sky had turned blue with bright white clouds. Similar to the view of Central London from Hampstead Heath, Tower Bridge has always been difficult to photograph but on that day – that perfect weather day of getting lost – Tower Bridge behaved itself.
Five days after arriving in London, we hopped on a plane for the tiny Mediterranean island country of Malta.