I awoke rather late in what would be last day in a foreign capital. I should have risen at dawn, I should have carried on throughout the night but I didn’t. My funds were limited and my mind was elsewhere. When I got back to the Premier Inn at Bexleyheath I took a bath and tried to clear my head. I awoke late on Thursday April 5th and walked towards the train station. Originally I had envisioned leaving the wedding to sit at the airport with my brother until our planes took off. But the flights booked included one out of Heathrow at 10:35pm so I was going sightseeing. I got to Bexleyheath station and hopped on a train that had been delayed. In 2002 I caught trains for 3 weeks without incident, now I was finding out why locals mocked the reliability of British rail.
We did eventually move as I studied my old maps from 2002, the line went into London finishing at Charing Cross. I was keen to see Hyde Park, Westminster, Tower Bridge and most importantly St Paul’s. So I figured I would change trains and head for St Paul’s but then I saw Charing Cross was at Trafalgar Square I decided I would just hop off there. Years ago I had gone on a tourist bus there and we had gone into a local pub for lunch surrounded by businessmen doing the same. Romantically I envisioned a similar destination this time with me taking the chance to try a warm beer for the first time. The journey was slow but slowly the houses gave way to apartment buildings and leafy parks to industrial areas. More and more buildings climbed higher into the sky and then started to become of older architecture. I didn’t need a map to tell me I was getting close and then when I hopped off my train I saw clearly the London Eye.
Coming out onto the main street on a sunny afternoon I looked around for a pub but soon decided I didn’t want to spend time or money on food. I saw a shop named Garfunkels that served British breakfast for about 10pound, I suspected it was a franchise and in I went to sit down with a nice window seat looking at Trafalgar. I settled in to do some people watching but instead ended up reading my Michael Caine biography What’s It All About? Reading about someone who came from London while in London also seemed appropriate and fulfilling.
Having chosen a rather boring meal to eat while in a foreign land I noticed with the sauces there was bottle of something I did not recognise – malt vinegar that the bottle said was to be poured over the chips. I could tell from its placement that this was as common in England as the other sauces and while not a huge vinegar fan I decided to have a go and found I quite liked it. Now I was truly cosmopolitan and eating something different.
I paid and walked over to Trafalgar Square. I was thrilled to be in old London town and such a place made the experience all so real and yet I was alone and with vaunted memories of 2002 that today couldn’t possibly measure up to. It was here in 2002 during a particular heat wave that Nadia and I joined others climbing into the world famous fountains to cool our feet. Now there were signs everywhere saying keep out of the water. Lions I had once bravely climbed towered above me out of reach. These were feelings I would often have throughout the day.
So I set off for the one place I wanted to go above all else – St Paul’s Cathedral and headed straight for Paul Mall.
I didn’t get too far before I righted myself and found if I stuck to The Strand it would take me there. Apologies to all Londoners who will be tearing their hair out at my lack of geographical mainstays. So off I went, the amazing thing about London is there is so much to see or do in such a small area. At one point I saw a black gothic building and stopped to take a picture as the battery on my phone gave out. I had a spare charger on me but needed the phone to last a while yet so I stuck to The Strand and headed for my destination. Along the way I saw police and a gentleman outside a Church that looked like some trouble brewing or blowing over.
When I got to St Paul’s there were bag inspections and dozens of people sitting down on the steps. I walked up and was asked to open my bags and I warned the gentlemen that one compartment had dirty clothes in it. Those around me were asked if I was going to the evening service but not me. The Church had closed to the general public in the last half hour or less but there were evening services. I will tell you about my love for St Paul’s another time but it was one of the highlights of my trip to London in 2002. Over the years when I ask people who have gone to London did they go and see it and they always helpfully reply that they’ve been to St Peter’s in Italy or there is really quite a nice cathedral in Kent. Having not gone to those places I will give them the benefit of the doubt but how you can dilly daddle around with Big Ben or Trafalgar Square when St Paul’s Cathedral is right there is really beyond me! Ahem but to each their own.
I walked and sat down on the pews waiting for the evening service and taking in the grand sight above me. There was something comforting in how it was just as beautiful and grand as I remembered her but soon my thoughts turned to how in less than six hours time my flight home was scheduled to take off. Could I afford to spend my time here taking in what I believed would a be a very special experience. Perhaps not. I got up and walked over to those who had welcome me and said “I’m terribly sorry but I’m going to have to leave.” As I stood there with a suitcase wrapped around me she replied “Maybe you can come back tomorrow.” And I smiled and I said “That would be lovely.” And it would be and maybe if not tomorrow then one day soon. On my way out I grabbed my loose change and put it in the donation boxes and hoped this squared me away with God who had been kind enough to get me here to see my favourite place in London and to support the staff who had kindly taken me in for the evening service I was now abandoning.
In 2002 one of the few well known tourist attractions we did not go to was The Monument so off I set to see that. My journey that day became a series of seeing the hint of famous landmarks in obscure and unexpected ways that let me know I was finally nearby. The Monument was designed by Sir Christopher Wren and Dr Robert King and erected as a memorial to the Great Fire. Standing at 202 feet or 61 metres if laid down on its foundations the end of it would reach Pudding Lane where the fire was believed to have begun in 1666. I am getting worse with heights and more out of shape every year so I was glad I had been recently going to the gym when I entered the narrow spiral stone staircase of 311 steps leading to a viewing platform. I stopped as other came down past me. One gentleman hopefully said to me “That I would have left the suitcase at home.” Out of breath I fired back “There is no home.” So I told him. Heh. Ahead of me was a father taking his kids up the monument with their grandfather. Dad was struggling but with great pride noted aloud that his father in his 70s was shooting ahead. Age is just a number I guess.
When we got to the top I heard the father pointing out to his kids where Granddad had grown up. Not far from Michael Caine or Beetley Pete I thought. In fact Tower Bridge was in front of me and I did think of Pete knowing he did not grow up far from there. I struggled around a full lap of the viewing platform and took a selfie showing how far the ground was below.
I’ve abseiled off Kangaroo Point at 18 metres and off 20 metre towers. I’ve stood on top of the Sydney Harbour Bridge but it was just as well I did not know that I was 48.7 metres above the ground right at that moment.
The Copper Urn with flames gives the monument the extra 13 metres. To be truthful though with the wire fencing around to stop jumpers made me feel more safe and I felt pretty comfortable despite the height. As I went to leave I suggested to a couple at the door “You go first, you’ll be faster than me.”
Now I made my way to the Tower of London which was understandably closed and then I walked across the beautiful and unique Tower Bridge. Years ago Nadia and I spent a day in London together where we went to Tower Bridge, HMS Belfast, Globe Theatre, Piccadilly Circus, Convent Garden and yes Trafalgar Square.
Chockfull of peak hour traffic Tower Bridge was still enchanting but I was now strictly sighting tourist landmarks rather than experiencing them. Instead I experienced the hum of the city as workers left for the day and young people and tourists took to the river for entertainment or a meal. The day’s ending suited my own feelings of wistfulness and farewell but also that a new part of the day was starting.
I crossed the river 3 or 4 times I think finally crossing the Millennium Bridge which I had not done fifteen years ago. I was on the wrong side of the river when I went past the Globe Theatre which Nadia saw in 2002 while I was on HMS Belfast. Maybe next time.
Some things had changed and looked more touristy, some things remained the same. There were a lot of concrete structures on each bridge that looked like old worn down ticket turn stiles of a bygone era. But I did not remember them from last time.
The sun continued to lower and I looked to see The London Eye off in the distance not thinking it could be much further but it was. Finally I came to an area with a Merry Go Round around Southbank where a busker was playing a beautiful version of Rocket Man. I took note of his name at the time and gave him all my loose change but I cannot remember it for the life of me.
The lights were coming on now and the song moved me as I strolled away. These kinds of moments are what make trips, of what makes life. I was impressed by how many performers were entertaining people along Southbank. There is a whole culture to buskers in London followed by bloggers with their own dedicated youtube sites. Some make a living, not great money but a living doing what they love and my hat off to their achievement of that, their talent and to what they bring to the river Thames every day.
I walked all afternoon covering at least 10 kilometres with 7 kilos are my back. I don’t know if Karen would’ve liked that but not for the first time did I think about her being there.
The London Eye came into view and I knew I was close. Big Ben was surrounded by scaffolding as I crossed Westminster Bridge.
It was where we essentially started our journey as London tourists in 2002, the tourist vendor on the corner I checked out to see if there were suitable gifts. This was where we first came in 2002, this was where that bastard attacked and killed people on 22 March, 2017 injuring 50 and killing five. I had thought about us on that bridge as a family fulfilling a lifelong dream on a weekday morning back in 2002 when that terrorist attack took place. As soon as I saw the concrete structures again on Westminster Bridge I knew what they were for and that they had not been there in 2002.
Less than a year after September 11, 2001 we travelled across the globe with new restrictions and laws and heightened security and at war. Now all these years later there had been even more terrorist attacks and more heightened security. Yet all around me were people out and about having a good time. That made me happy.
I saw up ahead Churchill’s statue and decided I would say hello before leaving. Photos of me with my siblings and Churchill were some of the first taken of as a family in London all those years ago. I was coming full circle almost by design but when I saw the Cenotaph I knew I had one more place to go. My face was red from wind blast, my steps were slow and deliberate due to blisters. In the beautiful blue twilight of a European autumn evening with golden shimmering lights and dropping temperatures I crossed the road and bowed my head in front of the war memorial.
When I descended down Westminster station I asked for directions. It was getting late and I had not the time nor energy to waste. A kind staff member sensed this and told me to catch the next train and switch at South Kensington. I swapped and waited anxiously for my train. I’ll admit that I had left in good time but if my train was delayed like earlier that day I was well and truly stranded. As a man who does not think of himself as brave I am it would seem casually reckless none the less. Next I had to swap trains again as I was going to Heathrow Terminal 4 and this train was only going to Heathrow Terminal 1, 2 or 3. One more anxious wait and my train came, soon I limped up to Terminal 4 to get my bag checked. I was asked where my boarding pass was and I helpfully replied “I thought I was getting that from you.” Thankfully again this good staff member showed me where to go where China Southern Airlines and I returned a few minutes later with my boarding pass. I had an hour to spare until take off but he told me with relief that I had just got in. Fair enough.
I now entered a gift shop having gotten things for some family members at The Monument, I now got a tote bag for Karen, a stuffed toy for my older sister, a tea towel for parents and a snow globe for some children. Plus magnets. A long term collector of spoons I didn’t get one. It did not seem long until we had boarded and were taking off from the tarmac. I had made it, I was on my way home. When I first booked the flights my imagination had gone to taking Karen to London in the near future. Now I was not so sure. It had been an eventful trip, it felt like a monkey was off my back in my long term longing for travelling overseas and yet also it seemed more possible now than ever. Seeing London again was wonderful but Karen’s absence also made me realise that there were other things more important. I don’t know what the future will bring, who does? The golden lights of a metropolitan city lay out before us outside the window. I looked desperately for a landmark and seconds passed as I failed to recognise anything. Then I saw what looked unmistakably like Tower Bridge and I smiled. In that moment for whatever reason I was struck by a feeling of farewell like I was seeing London for the last time and so I wished it well and thanked that beautiful grand old city of fond memories and my sister’s home. The wings tilted and the ground went out of view and I began my journey to Brisbane and my home.