Let me clarify that title: This isn’t a “24 Hours in London: How to Cram In Every Little Thing You’ve Ever Wanted to Do in London” London Layover. If you’re a first timer, my apologies – a quick Pinterest or Google search will get you everywhere you need to be.
But if you’ve been or if you like a slow start, this layover is more your speed.
Prior to flying, I always map out – literally – where I want to go. I star everything I want to see on GoogleMaps and then work on getting from A to B. It’d been seven years since I had been to London as a student and a lot can change in seven years. For one, I’m much less interested in the giant site-seeing cram and much more interested in slow strolls through pretty neighborhoods. And I realized something, looking back upon my old university photos, I had spent so much time being efficient on the Tube that I had missed out on a lot of the neighborhood charm that London offers.
So this time, I wasn’t going to use it.
My original game plan was to hop on the Heathrow Express (PSA- buy your tickets from them online two+ weeks in advance for a discount – it’s 15 minutes into the center of town), walk from Paddington to my Bayswater hotel, drop off my bags, and head east. I was going to head east, cutting through Hyde Park to see the Speaker’s Corner and a few war memorials before heading closer into the heart of the city through Mayfair’s red and white row houses. If I was feeling really ambitious, I’d do the Trafalgar Square museum circuit before cutting back to St. James’ Park, Buckhingham Palace, and Westminster. Then I’d head southwest along the Thames to Chelsea Physic Garden, north to Royal Albert Hall, west to Kensington Palace, north to Portobello Road and then wind my way back through Kensington to the hotel. It was over ten miles circling Hyde Park.
“You’re young!” I told myself. “You can do this, easily!”
Here’s a dose of reality for you and me: most of us work office jobs. We sit all day. If we’re good, we work out, we have stamina, maybe we drink a lot of coffee and it gets us through. Maybe, if you’re really lucky, you have callouses and your feet don’t swell enormously on long haul flights.
But I, apparently, was none of those things. I was out of shape, puffy, balloon-footed, and bleary-eyed. By the time I had made it to my hotel, I had checked off a few London mews along the way. But my feet were enormous and hot. I mean really hot and red and huge. I couldn’t figure it out. So I switched to my trusty Merrell sandals.
When it’s only in the mid 50s and you’re in London in sandals, people will stare. They will stare at your red feet trussed in leather straps, wondering what on earth this person is doing- it’s 54 bloody degrees out. Never fear, you will wonder what you are doing too. I did.
I decided the entire eastern portion of my map was ludicrously ambitious. So I scrapped it and headed south towards Royal Albert Hall. The park was littered with tourists from mostly Germany and France – either that or the whole of western London had been sold to foreign investors. Dogs ran loose and I marveled at their good behavior. An elderly lady was a good thirty feet from her Westie who lazed about. Neither seemed particularly interested in reuniting.
Up ahead, Prince Albert Memorial stood glowing gold in the sun, flanked by his monuments to colonialism. Across the way stood Royal Albert Hall, disappointingly covered in scaffolding. I scratched it off my list and continued on through Knightsbridge and Belgravia. I made a stop at the Natural History Museum, hoping to get a shot of their gorgeous central hall but it was so crowded it began to feel strangely stifling and I moved on for Kynance Mews, a much-loved street for Instagrammers. It’s tiny but charming. Its houses outfitted with sweeping wisteria and roses; its little-paned windows glittering like mosaics in the light. I took a few more steps with now-aching feet across well-rounded cobblestones. Strangely, they felt…wet. Why were my feet wet? I sat down to discover two silver dollar sized blisters- now just deep, weeping gashes- on the soles of my feet. The soles of my feet! Never have I ever gotten blisters on the soles of my feet and never from a solid pair of Merrells!
I sat down, rather conspicuously, on the edge of a stone planter to bandage myself up (always carry bandaids and neosporin) and take stock in my day’s plans.
A brief aside: The older I get (and the frailer- I’m young but two car accidents with nerve damage makes my body feel older) the more I realize I have to pay attention to what my body is telling me. I have to care about what it says too. I have to be flexible and willing to modify my plans. I have to be willing to sacrifice a portion of one day’s adventures to salvage the rest of the week. Prune your plans. Prune and keep pruning – you can always come back.
You aren’t going to make it to Portobello, I thought. It ain’t gonna happen. I hoisted myself up to hobble along to The Ivy – also much-instagrammed- to find it swarmed with…well…instagrammers. I snapped a quick shot, dashing any hopes of lunch there and replacing them with Chelsea Physic instead. I leaned in for a moment to inspect the dazzling floral display – all silk, no petal.
I took a shortcut to Chelsea Physic Garden and walked along the river. Grand row houses overlooked the water with their formal facades and intricate decorations. White wisteria climbed over an archway. Its fragrant floral clusters dripped down like rain.
Around the corner and tucked away was the diminutive entrance to Chelsea Physic. I settled in for lunch – a salmon en croute with pesto and tomato, leafy salad, and lemon olive oil cake with poached rhubarb. A French family sat catty-corner, passing an assortment of grain salads between them as the little girls in fluffy dresses chased each other across the green. The man beside me sipped white wine and read a book. The couple next to me complained of the cost of London food. “It’s not just the food nowadays!” she added to his quip, “It’s everything! It’s absolutely ridiculous!”
And I had to agree. Everything was expensive but it always had been – even seven years ago when, out of desperation for normal, out-of-the-ground food (my roommate blew our whole grocery budget on ice cream and frozen snacks), I spent $12 on a bunch of grapes. Granted, there was the rate conversion…but still.
I soaked in the sun light, watched the bees dash in and out of lemony rose blossoms and marvelled at the sheer size of everything. Four foot rhubarb stalks. Twelve foot geraniums. Enormous herb bushes. I jotted down the uses of each – Chelsea Physic is London’s oldest garden but focuses on useful plants over decorative.
By the time I reached the center of Hyde Park, my feet were searing. Every step was a challenge. In altering my gait to compensate (plus hours of sitting on a plane), I had managed to screw up my knee and hip. Something somewhere was pinched and was making sure I knew it. I sat down near the pond (I say sat…it probably looked like I fell or awkwardly, gracelessly dropped) to get the pressure off my feet. Children fed the ducks and chased each other. Parents tried to teach their kids how to ride bikes or called after their dogs. Friends caught up with each other about bad Tinder dates, work complaints, trip plans. I hoisted myself up and limped along. I looked at my phone’s map. The hotel was ten minutes, Portobello thirty plus twenty back to the hotel after. I glanced to my left at Kensington Palace; to my right at the Shard and the Eye.
“Take me to bed for God’s sake,” my body said. “I’ll have to walk for hours tomorrow!”
I considered the request. Tomorrow was a bus ride to Port Isaac along the Cornish coast. Full of steep coastal climbs, cobblestones, and unsure footings.
I sighed and drug myself along. An elderly man muttered something to a shirtless bearded man sitting on a blanket near a thicket. The seated man shouted something back and the old man stopped. They went back and forth. The old man wandered off, stopped, came back, and had another go. A young couple with a lanky puppy paused and we pushed off together, splitting at the gate.
Back at the hotel, I ran a bath. I washed off my blackened feet and finally stopped sneezing (I had forgotten the grime of London). The water stung my open wounds. I made tea and watched the clouds change over the white-washed roofline – billowing, menacing with rain, misting, before fading into darkness for the night. This is what it used to be like, I thought. Just your average night in, writing papers and painting watercolors over a cup of tea with bundled up hair.
And I gave myself permission to enjoy that – to take care of myself and relax because this is vacation as much as the site-seeing is too.
Next time: I head off for Port Isaac, a gorgeous Victorian, and sweeping coastal views.