Wednesday, August 28, 2013
Britain Revisited: Day 3
Hampstead Heath is an extraordinary place in North London. If you’ve never been there, I highly recommend it. I went there often when I was living in London to clear my head, pontificate on life, write in my journal, or just to eat a picnic lunch on Parliament Hill overlooking the city below. It is peaceful, woodsy, massive (800 acres), and quite literary (John Keats’s house is there, for instance). Anytime anyone ever visited me in London, I took them to the heath. It is worthy of several hours of time spent.
So it was, on the third day of our visit, Stephen and I decided to combine a visit to Abbey Road and, weather permitting, Hampstead Heath.
Stephen is an avid Beatles fan, so Abbey Road was a no-brainer. As first order of the day, we took the northern line to Swiss Cottage and found Abbey Road with no problem (although it is so inconspicuous that one could miss it!) Besides the road sign itself, the only other distinguishing factor marking this the crossing made famous by the four men on the cover of their Abbey Road album was the small crowd of Asian tourists running back and forth across the road and taking pictures of each other. And this is a busy intersection! Cars zoom through, and you kind of have to run across Abbey Road rather than walk it. In a brief lull, I was able to film Stephen striding back and forth across it, and he was happy.
We continued down to Abbey Road Studios, located in a white, two-storied building just next to the crossing. It is gated, so you have to stand on the outside of the gate and poke your camera through the bars to take pictures. What’s really interesting about this place is all of the graffiti on the walls surrounding it—little illustrations of John Lennon and Ringo Starr and lyrics from their songs adorn the white-washed cement. Love notes and sentiments of respect cover the entire wall in front of the studios—artwork in and of itself—all accumulated over the decades.
Our Beatles quest complete, and since it was not yet raining (although the sky threatened it), Stephen and I consulted a map to see how best to travel to Hampstead Heath. Still energized from the whole Abbey Road experience, and because I could see the place marker for “South Hampstead” on the map, I decided it must be possible to walk from there. I was sure that South Hampstead and West Hampstead must be very close to the village of Hampstead (need I be trite and remind what happens when we assume…?). We began our walk, chatting animatedly, observing the beautiful old row houses and expensive residences all around us. Because Hampstead is a suburb (or borough as they call them there) of London, it was much quieter than in the center of the city with nary a tourist in sight! Half an hour later, we reached a more rundown area of South Hampstead. I began to worry a little then, as I realized this looked nothing like the village. It began to rain a little, but we plowed ahead, into West Hampstead—an area of London I had never entered and did not know at all. An hour and a half later, we still were nowhere near the village of Hampstead, and the cold rain was coming down hard, pelting us in the face as we struggled along. Feeling less energetic suddenly, we ducked into a shopping mall, recovering for a few moments in a bookstore where I consulted a much more up-to-date London A-Z than the one I had. To my horror, I realized that we had nearly walked a complete circle. I could actually see Swiss Cottage, the tube stop from which we had walked to Abbey Road, located just a few streets over from us. Within a few more meters, we would have walked all the way back to where we started.
Suddenly, I harkened back to my grandmother Carol, who once told me that I had inherited her terrible sense, or complete lack, of direction. I really do have serious impairment in this area. If there is a wrong way to go, I will take it. Thankfully, Stephen has excellent sense of direction, and he was able to redirect us toward our goal before we both dropped from exhaustion. We found a bus stop promising a soon-to-arrive bus headed toward Hampstead, and once it came, we took it. This delivered us to the village, but we still had to walk to the Heath. By the time we arrived at the Heath, it was lunch time, and we were both starving and desperate to sit down. This being the case, I was only able to show Stephen the sign to the heath, a pond that was just a few feet from the entrance, and some trailer park that had mysteriously materialized on the property—much less impressive than the grand views of the city, the beauty of Kenwood House, or the tranquility of the duck-laden ponds.
Abandoning the heath idea, we made our way back to the village where we found a nice little pub called George IV, and had a magnificent (and very reasonably priced) lunch of pan-sauteed Chilean Seabass on a bed of fresh spinach, peppers, and rice. Excellent value!
Feeling somewhat refreshed and ready to set out once more, we walked to the Hampstead tube station and took it back into the city. We were just stopping off at King’s Cross Station to purchase our rail tickets for Wales the next day, when I realized that I had forgotten to show Stephen a very important tourist monument—Harrod’s! Now, if you don’t know about Harrod’s, the only thing I can say is this: imagine Nordstrom’s, Lord and Taylor, Saks Fifth Avenue, and any other outrageously expensive retailer, and add about 50% to the cost of every item in their stores. Then put all of those stores together on one plot of land, and add about five more stores to them. Harrod’s is absolutely gargantuan! It fills several blocks in London’s Knightsbridge area, and it is very easy to get lost in the store itself. Harrod’s is not a place where you actually buy anything, however—at least not for the average joe. It is one of those places where you observe a T-shirt that costs $150 and a pair of sunglasses for $2,500. Personally, I don’t really like to look at things I can’t buy, so I don’t even bother with the clothing sections. I usually go for the gift shop section, as there are some nice carrier bags, key chains, and decks of cards emblazoned with Harrod’s brand name, which are all affordable. The store has several restaurants, an entire food department filled with all sorts of traditionally English selections, a dog grooming section, and a pet store filled with luxurious dog beds, toys, and pet pampering products.
On this day, however, the store was packed with tourists. I hadn’t realized it, but this was the anniversary of Princess Diana’s death, and the store had erected a memorial to Diana and Dodi on the ground floor. Unfortunately, they set it up just in front of the escalators, and the tourists gathering around the display actually blocked the stairs to the next floor. Fighting through the crowd and through a moment of claustrophobia, we made it to the next floor. But in fact, every floor was overrun with people, so after about twenty minutes, we found our way to an exit and back onto the tube—both of us desperate for a lie-down before our dinner with Rebecca and Sharon that night.
We arrived at Embankment station later that afternoon and walked the footbridge over the Thames. We were to meet Rebecca before dinner for a drink at a pub on the South Bank, affording us more time to catch up and drink in the sights of the Thames and the London skyline. At the risk of sounding terribly nostalgic and cheesy, I have to pause for a moment to talk about the footbridge from Embankment tube station to South Bank. When I lived in London in the 90s, I was so in love with this spot that I went to it almost every weekend. I think it’s the best view of London, personally. At that time, my twenty-four or five-year-old desire was that I would get engaged on this bridge. And well….that didn’t happen. But something better did. I walked across it with my husband nearly twenty years later. Sniff! Okay, sappy moment over. I’ll post the pictures…
For dinner that night, Rebecca had chosen a marvelous Italian restaurant with astounding views of the Tower Bridge in the distance. Sharon, another friend I had not seen in ten years, was to meet us there. The Tower Bridge is an unbelievably majestic and impressive structure during the day, but when it is lit up at night, it is simply breathtaking! It was built as a draw-bridge and created in order to solve a traffic problem, and today, the bascules that lift the bridge are still operated by hydraulics as they were when the bridge was built in the 19th century (although they are no longer powered by steam as they once were).
The view of The Tower Bridge was magnificent, but not nearly as magnificent as it was to spend time with Sharon and Rebecca—two wonderful women who have impacted my life greatly. As Rebecca so aptly pegged the sentiment—friendships that “transcend time” are so important and so sweet in a life which is ever-changing and rarely constant. It also means much to me that these friendships live thousands of miles away, yet when we are together, we pick right up again. Beautiful.
Anyway, a wild and wonderful time was had by all. In fact, we closed down the restaurant and barely made the last tube out of the East End (the last ones run around midnight). This reminds me of a story from my past with which I will close our London saga.
Back in 1996, I once left the city very late at night aboard a night bus that I realized was going in the wrong direction. Frantically, I hopped off in an area of the East End known as “The Cut.” I didn’t think it was a particularly safe area, but I knew I was going the wrong way, so I had no choice. Panicked, I called Rebecca from a pay phone (this was before cell phones, of course), asking her for the number of a cab company.
“Where are you?” she asked.
“I don’t know!” I cried, desperately looking for a street name.
“Well, how will you call a cab company if you don’t know where you are?” She had a good point.
A drunken man in a suit staggered up the street, and I leaned out of the phone booth to call out to him: “Excuse me! Do you know what street we’re on?”
He looked up at the buildings, obviously as lost (or at least as ignorant about the street name) as I was. “Sorry. No idea,” he said.
Just then, I saw the blessed, blessed orange light of a cabbie as the car made its way up the street toward me. “A cab’s coming!” I told Rebecca. “I’m going to flag it down!”
I ran into the middle of the street, flailing my arms. When the cab stopped, I clutched the open window like a life preserver, sniveling into the poor man’s face. “I only have 7 pounds and I’m trying to get home to Notting Hill Gate. Would you take me west, as far as 7 pounds will go?”
The man agreed. But instead of dropping me off in Central London or South Kensington or some point along the way, the dear man drove me all the way back to Notting Hill Gate—a 9 pound fare—forfeiting complete payment and his tip. I will never forget his kindness.
That memory (and so many others from this great city) was etched into my mind as we parted ways with Rebecca at her tube stop. We would carry on to Queensway station, and the next day we would move on to Wales. Our time in London had been short, but for me, it was a healing and redemptive visit. When I left London in 1997, I was an emotional wreck—filled with fears and despair that I had to leave this London life. Now, with peace in my heart, I realized that everything had worked out exactly as it should have.