I started my day on Oxford street and not a single Brit was in sight. It was a hot and sticky day, too hot and sticky to spend it weaving in and out amongst the crowds. The throngs of shoppers ready to drop a wad of cash or plastic are all tourists who have come to spend their hard-earned vacation money on the world-famous shopping strip. It was all too much for me and was grossly overwhelming. Too many people and too much bustling drove me out, I had to make a quick exit from the tourist area and find somewhere a little quieter
Seeing as it was July 14th Bastille day, France’s national independence holiday, what else should one do but seek out a celebration of all things French in England? I know who goes to England and winds up at a festival celebrating the French but me. Who else also thinks this would be quieter than Oxford street?! Sometimes I wonder if jet lag has addled my brain. The festival was okay. Is was hard to figure out where anything was, despite the maps I found, and kind of seemed organised by the French. I know Napoleon organised the streets in Paris and the French were able to organise a revolution but I wonder if perhaps that was just a perfect storm, a confluence of events, rather than a testament to ability of a commonality among countrymen to plan. There were people everywhere who also seemed to have no destination in mind just like the commercial areas I had fled. The place that had been chosen for the festival is a very old one, Borough Market. When I say old in Great Britain it is downright ancient to a Canadian. Southwark in Central London houses the Market which claims to date back to 1014 (stated on the market’s webpage) and claims to be London’s oldest fruit and vegetable market. It was amazing to stand in the shadow of the famed London Bridge and marvel at the history of the area. I wondered which figures in history had wandered these streets as I was, what tales the cobblestones could tell of historic events and pivotal moments. The Borough Market had select stalls open and they were unbelievably lined up. This was a Sunday and the market was normally open on a Saturday so not all establishments were open, only those with a French feel or hunger for Bastille day earnings. People were swarming on to the roads making it next to impossible for cars and trucks to pick their way through the crowds.
Without much convincing it was back on the tube for me. I had had enough of the crowds and was longing for a wide open space where I could breathe. It is stifling in the metallic cylinder winding its way through the earth. It made me feel claustrophobic for the first time on the train system. I couldn’t hardly wait to escape the train’s confines. I don’t think there was anyone English on the train either. The cacophony of languages made my head hurt. I needed to get out of the tourist zones and find where the locals hang out in the heat. I took the train to the most local, green area, off the beaten track yet still near by I could think of in short order. I took the train to West Hampstead. The northern line of the Underground was under construction and there were shuttle busses in lieu of rail services, so Hampstead station was not a good bet for getting to the Heath quickly. It worked out alright as I was a the London bridge station and it was a straight shot on the Jubilee line north. I had to navigate my way from the underground station to Hampstead Heath though which proved difficult.
Once again I got hopelessly lost. I don’t know what it is with this area but I need a guide to marshal me along the winding roads. I can manage in every other city including those where I do not know the local alphabet and I am as good as a compass for getting around. However, drop me in the middle of Hampstead and I am as lost as the second sock from the dryer. The rest of London is fine just this one area. I suppose I am spending too much time in awe of the area. It is by far my favourite part of London to date. I could see myself spending lots of time in the vibrant area if I came to London often. I of course could not afford to live in Hampstead as it boasts a large number of millionaires. Last time I checked I would have to work until I was ninety and not spend a penny to be a part of the million pound club on a flight attendant’s wages. I will just have to enjoy it on my travels with work instead.
One of the things I stumbled upon in my detour was this little church yard grave area. It boasts the oldest churchyard in the centre of greater London and I have no idea what the church is called or if I could even find it again. There were a few people of note buried around the grounds including painter John Constable. It was a day for Constable, for at one point I was trying to glean a street name off the side of the buildings and saw one of the circular blue plaques affixed to an edifice marking a building he once called home. Perhaps I should study up on his works, it may be a sign. Finally I found a wide open space where I could breath in and not be crushed by crowds, Hampstead Heath, a massive park.
Is there anything better than spending the remainder of the afternoon basking in the high twenty degree weather? Not really in my opinion. The sky was clear and I was glad I had packed both a skirt and sunblock. It just goes to show pack a little of everything in your suitcase just in case. The Heath was quite different from the last time I visited it in May. The grass had grown long, gained a dried straw colour and gone to seed in a wheat sort of way that would have been perfect hanging out of Tom Sawyer’s mouth. It made me think of the song “Fields of Gold” by Sting as I stared out at the expanse of the green space. I have come to the conclusion that this is quite possibly my favourite place in London, maybe even the world. That is saying a lot as far as I am concerned. Hampstead Heath is devoid of the usual tourist mob of Hyde, Green, Regent, or St James Parks. The layout and expanse lend a feeling that even though most locals from North London were probably here today too I hardly noticed other people. It reminded me of a park we have at home, Nose Hill Park, but much better used. I relish how diverse the activities are in the acreage this park covers. I witnessed cricket, football (soccer), Kite Flying, Frisbee playing, swimming, running and cycling to name a few.
Looking out from the top of Parliament Hill at the canopy of trees covering the houses, with a church spire poking out here and there along with being able to spy the Gherkin, and Shard buildings along with St Paul’s cathedral captured my heart and imagination. Imagine what it must have been like to look out at the city from this spot one hundred, two hundred even a millennia ago. Imagine what stories these hills could tell of what they have seen and who had tread upon them. The day-to-day mundane, historic and events that formed the London we see today may have been witnessed by the same trees that covered the walkways. The park is a good place to seek respite after the cacophony of languages clashing on the tube. Here there are sounds of happiness; laughter, long-lost acquaintances running into each other by happenstance.
Buildings in London have a the diversity of modern and those from a bygone era. Sometimes I wish the walls could talk and tell the tale if what they have seen lives led. Sometimes a break in the street with a tiny lane that lends a glance at a gem of a building exhilarates me. I love how high density cities use every bit of space available. Coming from a sprawling city where we have plenty of land to seeing the space under the freeways being used functionally is amazing. From tennis courts to soccer pitches to car parks. I stared out at the city wondering about people in the houses and those I see on the streets if they are happy with where they are in life and the rat race. I often have a hard time imagining myself in a “regular” 9-5 work environment. I like that variety and adventure my job brings me. It really is the best job for a nomad like me to keep some sense of order with a home in one city but the world as my oyster, so to speak. I doubt the shine of travel will ever wear off for me. It is odd how at home in a foreign country I can feel. It is almost like coming home every time I set foot on English soil, perhaps it is just the nostalgia of returning to my ancestral roots.
As the sun started to drop on the horizon I wound my way back to the West Hampstead Underground station I had arrived at earlier in the afternoon. I did not want to burrow in to the depths the underground promised and chose to keep walking along the High streets of various areas, Swiss cottage, Camden, Kilburn, St John’s wood swirled around me as I followed the pavement south back towards Oxford street. One of the thoughts that crossed my mind as I ambled was how you could see where the village centres had once been. The high streets are commercial areas surrounded by residences that vary with the area from exceptionally expensive to more affordable abodes relatively speaking, it is London after all. What is affordable here is downright pricy elsewhere. I stopped in St John’s Wood at a Lebanese restaurant, Sahara, that had a sidewalk full of tables set up out front. I had eaten there one Christmas dinner and quite liked the food and service. I was not let down, a wonderful Falafel wrap with crudités and olives to begin and a side salad for under 10 pounds was an excellent way to finish my layover in London.