I’ve developed just the best tradition with my friends in London of how to say farewell when it comes time to leave my favorite city. We meet for breakfast at Dishoom in their Kings Cross location and gorge on bacon naan and kejriwal, a spicy cheese toast that defies description. It’s a sad parting for me, but who knows? Those guys are likely celebrating my departure.
I usually take the Heathrow Express from Paddington to catch my plane, but since I was at Kings Cross, I hopped on the Piccadilly line, which has a cheaper (albeit slower) Tube service straight to the airport. As we calculated how long my trip to the wilds of Airport City (disclaimer: not a real city), Annabel said, “Twenty-three stops. You should write a blog post about 23 things you love about London.”
I (almost) always try to do what Annie tells me to (she’s far smarter about my life than I am), so here we are. Between Kings Cross and Heathrow Terminal Three, 23 stops and 23 things I love about London. Annie wanted to be Number One on the list, but I’m hoping the fact that I’m following her orders so explicitly will compensate. At each stop, starting with Russell Square, you’ll find a thing I love.
RUSSELL SQUARE: I love that London is a city of parks and neighborhoods. One of my favorite places to walk in the city is Hampstead Heath, where within minutes you can be in such deeply shrouded forest that you’d never know you were within the environs of one of the world’s largest cities. St. James Park is cradled in the lap of Buckingham Palace and Westminster and not to be missed, but I loved wandering Clissold Park with my friends Jenna, Emma and Ralph, and I’m anxious for my friend Janet (and Mills, of course!) to show me around the Hackney Marshes.
HOLBORN: I’m just going to say it. I love the Tube. I love the tiles. I love the escalators. I love the advertisements. I love the maps and its relative efficiency (Ask a New Yorker how things are going when you’re stuck a few extra minutes due to that signal failure on the Northern Line.). I love that there’s poetry on some of the cars. I love the typeface and contactless payment at the turnstyles. I love how egalitarian it is and the fact that it serves everyone from parents with babies to school kids to working stiffs to dogs. I love seeing people get on with groceries and bouquets of flowers and books and headphones and PRIDE flags and even their dinner. Even when it’s crowded and hot and sticky, I love it all. London’s Underground is the world’s first underground passenger railway and it carries up to 5 million passengers a day, and I love it when I’m one of them.
COVENT GARDEN: I love that the concept of a High Street lingers in many neighborhoods. The term High Street has evolved from Middle English (where “high” means “important’) to denoting the main retail area of a neighborhood. This is where you go for all the most important shops and businesses. From what I gather, after its heyday in the 19th century, High Street culture has taken a bit of a hit of late (haven’t we all?). Still, coming from a land of endless mallscapes and suburbia, I love the spill of cafes and shops along the street. I love that you can pop into the butcher and Waitrose and then for coffee afterwards, maybe grabbing that book that caught your eye on the way home.
LEICESTER SQUARE: I love the walking culture that living in London affords. You can’t get to the Tube or to the High Street without walking there, now can you? I love that any commute I make includes a ten or so minute walk to the Tube station. I walk everywhere when I’m there, and it’s just not a lifestyle I can replicate when I’m in the US.
PICCADILLY CIRCUS: Oh man, how I love the Ponds. I can walk to the Chesapeake Bay and be swimming there in less than five minutes, but there’s something so, so special about slipping beneath the still, glass-green water of the Ponds. Maybe it’s the trees looming overhead, or the ducks floating past. It’s for sure the color palette. Bottle green. Burnt orange. Sepia brown. All call me to nature. In the Ladies Pond it’s for sure the community of women, but I spent my first time in the Mixed Pond this summer, and that same sense of joy can be felt there. As I hung out on a buoy, legs dangling, I could hear first-timers call to each other, “this is amazing! we should do this every day!” Yes, you should.
GREEN PARK: Okay, it sounds like a little thing, but I love Banham locks. Found in all the homes and flats I stayed in (so they must be everywhere!), these locks are substantial and easy to use and, to put it simply, satisfying. My best guess is that they’re the UK version of the US’s ever-present Yale Locks, but I like their door handles, I like how sturdy the locks are and how intricate the keys. Long live the Banham Lock.
HYDE PARK CORNER: Why is it that even the street names are charming? Granted, Hyde Park Corner is a roundabout and a Tube stop, but still. England’s Lane? Blackfriars Street? Pickwick Place. St. Bees Close. Say it out loud. See if you don’t like it.
KNIGHTSBRIDGE: Ahhh, the bookstores. I’m not sure I’ve left yet without buying a book, which, much as my suitcase may protest, seems entirely appropriate. This is a picture of Daunt Books, in Marylebone High Street (see what I did there?), an Edwardian bookshop that specializes in travel books. Also beloved is Hatchard’s, which has been selling books since 1797 and is featured in my beloved Mrs. Dalloway. On one of my next trips, I want to get to Heywood Hill, where Nancy Mitford worked. Don’t get me wrong, I love my Kindle (we’re BFFs), but nothing, not one thing, beats losing yourself in a bookshop, and in those London comes up trumps.
SOUTH KENSINGTON: Dogs. Dogs in pubs. Dogs in estate agents. Dogs on the Tube. Dogs in the park. Dogs under tables at outdoor cafes. Dogs sitting next to you on banquettes. Dogs in taxis. Dogs on trains. Dogs so welcome that it’s surprising and off putting to see a “Dogs Not Welcome” sign, as if perhaps they could have phrased it more politely.
GLOUCESTER ROAD: It’s not for nothing that London is one of the world’s biggest cities, and that size is reflected in its diversity. I love walking the streets hearing countless languages and seeing countless nationalities. A diverse culture is a richer culture, and it shows.
EARLS COURT: I love pub life. Not that I’m always hanging about in pubs, mind you, but Annie and I did a fair amount of our work this past week in pubs (there may have been some rosé involved), and I love the relaxed come-as-you-are-stay-as-long-as-you-like vibe that pubs have. Sure, we have our coffee-shop culture here in the US, but can you get an order of chips (fries) and a pint at Starbucks? And each pub is unique, with different vibe, different look, and doggies welcome. There’s a lot to love right there.
BARONS COURT: I love London’s Blue Plaques. Started in 1866, the Blue Plaques are placed on buildings of historical significance. London does an amazing job of blending its vibrant modern life (I’m looking at you Shard and Gherkin) while honoring its storied history, and I get a little thrill each time I see one of these plaques on a building I pass. “Sylvia Plath Lived Here.” “Dylan Thomas Lived Here.” “Charles (Freaking) Dickens Lived Here.” Literary, historical, political, you name it, those figures are represented. You’re breathing history when you walk down this city’s streets, and those plaques help you remember that.
HAMMERSMITH: Little known fact, when I was 14 I traveled with my family to London, and we stayed near Primrose Hill. So coming to see Annie and her family feels a little like coming home. Can coming back to a memory be like coming home? That’s how it feels. I love the tall grasses and the view from the top, day and night. I love the dogs that run up to you and the people that picnic on the green. I love the winding streets that surround it, and it might, just might be one of my all time favorite places in the world.
TURNHAM GREEN: The history of curry is complex, and although it’s considered the food of the Indian subcontinent, what we know of as curry is truly a British invention. The Portuguese first tasted these stews in the late 1400s and took their name from the Tamil word kari. And no matter how you feel about the Byzantine moves of the British East India Company, once they wrestled control of India from the Portuguese, they charted a course through history that connects India and Britain for good and for ill. The good? The abundance of Indian food in London and Indian restaurants that thrive today. I’ve already mentioned Dishoom, but if you get a chance, hit up Bombay Bustle. Next on my list? Darjeeling Express.
ACTON TOWN: I get far fewer headaches in London, even with all that rosé, but I am allergic to the London Plane tree that populates the streetscapes. So while I don’t love the London Plane, I loved learning that this tree, believed to be a hybrid between the American Sycamore and an Oriental Plane, was planted en mass during the Victorian era because its hardy nature could withstand the rigors of the Industrial Revolution. And get this! One of the best places to view the London Plane is Berkeley Square, one of my favorite places I visited way back when I was 14!
SOUTH EALING: Recognize this street? Go watch Paddington 2 and see if you don’t. I love the rows upon rows of terraced houses that populate London’s streets. Italy gave the concept of the terraced house to London in the mid-1600s, but its true building boom took place during the, you guessed it, Victorian Era. There’s a lot to say about building codes and architecture, but true terraced houses can be seen straight through, from front to back, with windows on either end. I love that they exist as houses still or are converted into flats and that they are an integral part of London’s landscape.
NORTHFIELDS: I love that there are places you go to for things. Easter candy at Selfridges. Underthings (how Victorian of me…and among some of my best purchases!) at Marks and Spencer. John Lewis for housewares and suitcases. Men’s suits in Savile Row. Liberty for gorgeous fabric and prints.
BOSTON MANOR: London has a knife violence problem. The mayor of London has, rightly I think, linked this to poverty and has set up youth initiatives to combat knife violence, and on one of my walks from the Tube I pass a giant bin for disposing of knives. What London does not have is a gun violence problem, and I love waking up and not learning of more deaths by guns in my community. Just last week, five people were shot in two days in my city alone.
OSTERLY: I’m more of an appreciater of gardens than a gardener, so I love the front garden culture of London’s streetside homes. Many a walk from the Tube has been enriched by spindly, long-legged rose bushes, by verdant trees, wandering wisteria and lush lilacs. Thank you home gardener, thank you.
HOUNSLOW EAST: I love all the neighborhoods of London, urban and less so. I love the buzz of SOHO and Oxford Circus compared to the calm of Primrose Hill and Hampstead Heath. All within half an hour of each other.
HOUNSLOW CENTRAL: What I really sense, at least among my friends there, is how much Londoners love London, and the UK in general. Sure commuting can be a hassle, and Brexit is their own special kind of terrifying, but to a person, the people I talk to love their city and their country and they’re proud of it and think it’s beautiful in a way that’s lovely to bear witness to.
HOUNSLOW WEST: I’m just going to say it. I love Liberty. I blame Annabel for this, but seriously. I love its dark wood walls and staircases. I love the air of luxury when you walk in the doors, the way it smells, and the lions that stand guard in front of the flowers outside. I love that novels based in WWII reference Liberty prints, and, like much of London, they can be both gloriously historic and cutting edge all at once. Unlike the miles of malls we have in the US, this is shopping with heart and soul, and I find it hard to have a better experience.
HATTON CROSS: Walk into Marks and Spencer or Waitrose and get a gin & tonic or Pimms Cup in a can, what more could you need?
HEATHROW TERMINAL 3: It takes about an hour on the Piccadilly Line to get from King’s Cross to Heathrow; how long did it take you to read this post (wink)? I love learning about London. I love it and all its quirks and eccentricities more each time I visit. I love having rooms to stay in Clapham and Primrose Hill and Stoke-Newington, if Ralph lets me. I love that there are places outside of London where friends have invited me that I haven’t even been! And that’s what it boils down to. The fact that I have such a dear group of friends, both inside London and out quite overwhelms me. Here I am, solidly (and mostly contentedly) in middle age, and these friendships, most of which are new, have come into my life to surprise and delight at me. What a gift, at this age and this stage to be delighted and surprised in such a way. Thank you dear friends. Thank you London.