On Tuesday, July 25th, I woke up in Paris. One three-hour Chunnel ride later, I was back in London, and within an hour of that, I had the keys to the Chelsea flat back in my hand.
It was good to be in the flat again. It was almost like coming home. But it didn’t feel the same as it had the first time. These were two separate visits, not a continuation of one. I hadn’t expected that sensation – to borrow a phrase from the girls, “it hadn’t quite the flavor I anticipated.” But neither did it dampen my enthusiasm for the place. I was thankful for this last week I was getting, and was ready to make the most of it.
On my first full day back in London, I visited the National Portrait Gallery to view the BP Awards for 2017, and one of those winning portraits in particular. It is a study of Dr. Tim Moreton, a former Registrar of the National Portrait Gallery, painted by a wonderfully talented artist, Lucy Warner Stopford, who also happens to be a longtime friend of mine. I had learned about her prestigious honor when I was visiting her father and stepmother in Oxford (which I cover in my next post, “Home Can Be More Than One Place”). In the Gallery, I studied her compelling portrait, dazzled by the palette of colors Lucy had fused together and formed into Dr. Moreton’s likeness. I then took some time to view the other BP Award winners before returning to Lucy’s work, where I hovered for a good half an hour, for the sole purpose of boasting to other museum-goers that I knew the artist.
After that satisfying experience, I walked up to New Bond St to the Allies Statue, an outdoor art piece which is comprised of a wooden park bench on which sit life-size bronze sculptures of Winston Churchill and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. It captures the friendship and mutual admiration of those two men who brought us to victory in World War II. What is especially compelling about this piece is that the artist left space between the two men’s sculptures, so that a person can join them on the bench. I was looking forward to that.
I arrived at the block of New Bond street where the statue is supposed to reside, only to discover that there was construction work taking place right in that spot, and the statue has been moved into storage somewhere. This was an annoyance I hadn’t been expecting, and I was pretty darn disappointed. With as much as World War II was figuring into my journey, I had really wanted an opportunity to visit the sculpture and take a seat, but it would just have to wait for another time.
I had far better luck on another outing I was excited to make, to the Globe Theatre to see “Much Ado About Nothing”. It would be my first time attending a performance in the replica of the famous Shakespearean theatre since it opened in 1997. “Much Ado About Nothing” is a play I already like, but this production sounded especially intriguing because it was set in 1914 Mexico, with Latin music and dancing.
It was an engaging, spirited production, and I have to think the men, especially, enjoyed their costumes. Instead of sporting Elizabethan stockings and frills, these actors were dressed as caballeros, with cowboy boots, gun belts, a scruffy appearance and all of the boisterous swagger that goes with it.
The Globe Theatre itself lived up to all of my expectations – the building had been meticulously recreated, and the experience was as authentic as one could hope for, right down to when the audience members standing in the stalls got spritzed with light rain during the performance. But no one seemed to mind in the slightest.
From there, the days slipped by fast, and the next thing I knew, it was Monday, July 31st, the day of my move from the flat in Chelsea to the Grand Hotel, where Cornelia and Emily, along with the Skinners, had stayed. I would remain there until Friday, August 4th, when I would catch the boat-train to Southampton and board the Queen Mary 2 back to the States.
(Okay, so “boat-train” is an antiquated term from Edwardian times, referring to trains that ran to a port for the specific purpose of catching a passenger ship. But it applies well to my particular journey plans. And also, I just really enjoy saying, “I will be catching the boat-train…” After all, how often does one get the opportunity to utter those words?)
On the morning of the move from the flat, I woke up feeling terribly, feverishly sick. Up until that day, I hadn’t had so much as a sniffle, but the months of traveling had finally caught up to me. It was a nuisance, to be sure, but I could feel only gratitude that it was happening now at the end.
I managed to get everything together in time to catch the river bus one last time from Chelsea to Embankment, and was still holding up fairly well when I entered the Grand Hotel, even feeling excited for the novelty of being steps away from the West End instead of a couple of subway rides. Not that I would have the strength to take advantage of the situation.
I spent most of the next few days lying in bed, in various states of consciousness. Occasionally I would venture out for something to eat, or to soak up some sun in the Embankment Gardens while my hotel room was being cleaned. I knew that if I didn’t baby whatever illness this was, and really take care of myself now, I would be sick at sea.
By Thursday, twenty-four hours before I would be leaving London, I was finally starting to feel better. After being cooped up for three days, I decided the best thing for my recovery now would be to get some fresh air and sunshine. I started the day by walking over to St. Paul’s Cathedral, which was quite a haul, but I didn’t mind – it was just good to be out of doors.
I never can approach the magnificent St. Paul’s Cathedral without thinking of that iconic photograph from World War II, which had stiffened the backs and strengthened the resolve of the British to fight on. Thank God it survived the Blitz.
After my visit to the cathedral, I took my time meandering back through central London – wandering through Covent Garden, strolling along the Strand, then making my way down to St. James Park, where I whiled away the afternoon.
There was nothing new or particularly exciting in anything I was doing. But everything about the day was amplified. It was all in sharper focus because I would be gone from it soon. I was completely connected to this time and place, as I felt – and tried desperately to hang onto – every moment as it passed.
That evening, I was happily still energized and feeling well enough to attend the performance of “Queen Anne” at Theatre Royal Haymarket. It was the first time in at least 20 years that I had been there, and I was glad I had made the effort to go. The play itself was good, and just being at the theatre allowed me to spend a little time with some lovely memories from my twenties.
After the play, I walked back from the theatre through Trafalgar Square. The daytime crowds of tourists had pretty much dispersed, and the lions and fountains of the square were left to the young, flirty people. I made my way down to the Thames, where I stood for a long while gazing across it to the South Bank, which was bustling with lights and music and voices and bodies, all under the watchful London Eye, as the twilight disappeared into darkness. Sometimes life is perfect.
I could’ve stayed forever.
Top: Swans grace the lake in front of Bletchley Park.
Middle: Dr. Tim Moreton, by artist Lucy Warner Stopford; afternoon tea with my friend the artist, fittingly at the National Portrait Gallery; Lucy tidying up after making a start on a portrait of me!
Top row: “Much Ado About Nothing”, playing at The Globe Theatre; Shakespeare would be shocked at the lack of bawdiness in the crowd.
Middle row: Packed and ready to leave the flat; last look at my cozy London home; leaving Chelsea by boat.
Bottom row: Herbert Mason’s iconic 1940 photograph of St. Paul’s Cathedral; the London Eye, Big Ben and Parliament, from the Jubilee (Embankment) Bridge; finally scoring my photo with the Allies, a year later.